BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Chattanooga wouldn’t have minded if all 40 minutes of Saturday evening’s game at Samford played out like the first five minutes.
But where’s the excitement in that?
“These are the sweetest ones,” UTC sophomore Martynas Bareika said. “Hopefully it’s one of many.”
The Mocs jumped out to a 16-point advantage early in the first half of their Southern Conference road opener at Samford's Pete Hanna Center, but Bulldog sophomore Raijon Kelly brought his team all the way back with his brilliant first-half shooting performance.
Kelly knocked down five 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Bulldogs close. With the game hanging in the balance, though, the 6-4 guard couldn’t convert from beyond the arc, and Chattanooga held on for a hard-fought 74-70 victory.
The Mocs (5-9, 1-1 SoCon), who’ve now won four of their last five, will certainly take it.
“We had to have it,” UTC head coach John Shulman said. “I didn’t want to tell (the team) that. I don’t know if they look past that next game, but being 1-1 — winning on the road — that is important.”
With Chattanooga clinging to a 72-70 lead with 10 seconds to play, Kelly let go a makable 3-pointer with around four seconds left of the clock, but his shot banged off back iron. UTC junior Sam Watson was there to snag the defensive rebound, all but sealing the victory.
“I would have really enjoyed (winning big),” Shulman said. “You go on the road and you win big, that doesn’t happen much in conference play. It’s more satisfying with how we won. It would have been more fun probably if we won big, but we did a good job of toughing it out.”
Junior Z. Mason and freshman Gee McGhee each scored a team-high 17 points for the Mocs, who held a 39-38 advantge at the break, while freshman Farad Cobb continues to show improvement at the point, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“I’m really getting comfortable,” Cobb said. “I’ve worked hard and it’s starting to come together. I’m making better reads; I’ve got a better flow to my game. I think I’m making better decisions and my confidence level has gone up a lot.”
Bareika also had a big night for Chattanooga.
The 6-4 guard from Kedainiai, Lithuania, knocked down three crucial 3-pointers, brought down a team-high eight rebounds and handed out four assists. And while his stat line might not show it, perhaps his biggest contribution came at the defensive end.
“I asked the coach to put me on (Kelly),” said Bareika. “I felt like I could, if not stop him, at least slow him down. I’m confident in my defense, and I think I did an all right job. We won.”
Kelly led all scorers with 27 points — 17 in the first half — and 6-8 freshman Tim Williams added 16 points and six rebounds.
"We've had some tough breaks," Shulman said. "Our schedule's been tough, injuries, but we've battled through a lot of stuff. We're hanging in there when no one gave us a chance to hang in there. It doesn't have to be pretty. They're a confident bunch and they think we can keep winning. I'm not going to tell them any different."
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.