CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Patience is a virtue, or so some say.
Considering some of the things first-year Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez saw from his team in his first game at the helm of the 49ers, it may be tough for him – or for Charlotte fans, for that matter – to practice patience.
Despite those glimpses of the program’s future, visiting Chattanooga built a 13-point halftime lead and placed four scorers in double figures, allowing the Mocs to hold off Charlotte, 80-69, in front of 3,732 fans at Halton Arena.
“The first games are always challenging, because you don’t know what to expect,” said Sanchez after the game. “Win or lose, we learn, and we grow. This is a long journey. The question is, what do we learn from here, and how do we improve as a group?”
Chattanooga (1-0) secured the lead just 13 seconds into the game, before two Charlotte baskets gave the 49ers their largest lead of the contest. Three straight triples from the Mocs put Chattanooga back ahead by six at the first media stoppage. Charlotte (0-1) sliced the margin back to one on back-to-back baskets, then stayed within punching distance for much of the opening stanza. The Mocs went on a 9-0 burst to extend the lead to 13, prompting a 49er timeout.
After that 13-point deficit held through the interval, Chattanooga kept up the pressure on the offensive end. Despite the Mocs’ hot shooting precluding the 49ers from getting stops, Charlotte continued to stay in the game. The lead never extended past 15, and a Charlotte run, aided in no small part by its defensive intensity, gradually whittled the margin back into single digits.
Charlotte worked the lead back to seven points for much of a three-plus minute stretch in the second half, a period in which the 49ers showed the early phases of the pack line defense for which Sanchez’ former employer, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, became famous. Sanchez is looking to implement the “pack” with his club, and the early returns were quite favorable. The roar of the Halton Arena crowd grew with every extended defensive possession, much as the crowds react in Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena.
“The one thing about these guys is their effort, and I can’t say anything negative about that,” Sanchez stated. “They fought, they battled, particularly in the second half. We were down, and we showed flashes defensively. We got a couple of shot clock violations, and so on, so I do believe that, for the most part, the effort was phenomenal.”
Chattanooga coach Lamont Paris expressed pride in how his team handled the 49er run.
“That’s great to be able to do that. The lead began to dwindle at a pretty quick rate. That’s what tends to happen, the crowd gets into it and players make some tough shots. To be able to handle that situation was great,” Paris told the media after the game. “That type of experience that you can’t pay for. To be in those situations and learn from them. We’ll have so many things we can show these guys and do it in a manner where they still feel good about what they did on the court, rather than listening about what they didn’t do well.”
Much of Chattanooga’s success, particularly early in the game, was fueled by the perimeter shot. The Mocs connected on 11-of-21 tries from distance (7-for-13 in the opening half), with Fairfield transfer Jerry Johnson Jr. draining all four of his attempts in the stanza. Chattanooga center Thomas Smallwood converted all three of his tries in the second half, with Charlotte forced to play smaller due to roster limitations and foul concerns.
“No, particularly the five man (Smallwood),” said Sanchez when asked if his club was able to contest the outside shot the way he had hoped. “We didn’t recover quick enough. Our ball screen coverages of him were not adequate. That’s an area that we have to improve. We’ll address it.”
Johnson Jr. and Smallwood were two of the four Mocs to finish the game in double figures. Johnson Jr.’s 18 paced the Mocs, with Smallwood contributing 14. Donovann Toatley added 17 for the visitors, with Kevin Easley tallying 14.
Star Charlotte guard Jon Davis poured in 31 for the 49ers, knocking down 11-of-25 shots from the field. Freshman Malik Martin was the only other Niner in double digits, scoring 13.
Result aside, the message from this young coach to his young team was clear after the seal was broken on their season and his head coaching career.
“This is a journey. This is not gonna happen right away. There’s no magic dust,” said Sanchez. “It’s not pretty, it’s not sexy, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s just simple hard work.”
Chattanooga returns home to host Eastern Kentucky Saturday night in McKenzie Arena. That game is slated for a 7:00 (Eastern) tip-off. Charlotte continues its homestand Saturday, hosting Oklahoma State. The contest with the Cowboys will commence at 4:00, and will be streamed on ESPN+.
CHATTANOOGA 80, CHARLOTTE 69
CHATTANOOGA (1-0): Scott 1-1 0-0 2, Johnson Jr. 6-11 2-3 18, Toatley 4-10 8-8 17, Smallwood 5-9 0-0 14, Easley 5-12 2-3 13, Jean-Baptiste 2-2 3-4 8, Commander 2-6 2-2 6, Kerby 0-1 0-0 0, Brown 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 26-55 17-20 80.
CHARLOTTE (0-1): Haslem 4-6 0-2 8, Davis 11-25 7-8 31, Robb 0-0 0-0 0, Martin 3-5 7-7 13, Mangum 2-5 1-2 6, McGill 1-2 0-0 2, Blight 0-0 0-0 0, Supica 1-1 2-4 4, Kitoko 0-0 0-0 0, Younger 2-6 0-0 5. Totals 24-50 17-23 69.
Halftime — Chattanooga 41-28. 3-Point Goals—Chattanooga 11-21 (Johnson Jr. 4-7, Toatley 1-3 Smallwood 4-5, Easley 1-3, Jean-Baptiste 1-1, Commander 0-1, Kerby 0-1), Charlotte 4-16 (Davis 2-7, Martin 0-2, Mangum 1-3, McGill 0-1, Younger 0-3. Fouled Out — Smallwood (CHA), Younger (CLT). Rebounds — Charlotte 31 (Mangum/Younger 5), Chattanooga 30 (Smallwood 5). Assists — Chattanooga 10 (Toatley 4), Charlotte 8 (Davis 4). Total Fouls — Charlotte 24, Chattanooga 22. Technical — NA. A — 3732.
Points in the Paint —NA. Points off Turnovers —Chattanooga 18, Charlotte 10. Second-Chance Points — Charlotte 6, Chattanooga 4. Fast Break Points — NA. Bench Points — Chattanooga 16, Charlotte 11.