KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Chants of “U-T-C, U-T-C!” echoed in Thompson-Boling Arena Friday night as the final seconds ticked off a scoreboard reflecting Chattanooga’s 82-69 victory.
It marked the first time since 1991 that Tennessee’s men’s basketball team had lost a home opener, a streak of 25 straight wins in lid-lifters.
Most of the 14,483 fans announced in attendance had already left the arena, some slipping out with 10 1/2 minutes left and Tennessee down 10 points in its men’s basketball season opener.
“We’re going to be all right,” second-year Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I said coming in it would be tough; We were playing against a team in midseason form, they know what they are doing, they’ve played together a long time.”
Indeed, Chattanooga’s five senior starters had a combined 299 starts while the Vols’ opening lineup had just 74 between them.
The Mocs returned four starters from last season’s 29-6 team, and they are once agains favored to win the Southern Conference with Preseason SoCon Player of the Year Tre’ McClean (21 points, 10 rebounds), and 6-10 two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Justin Tuoyo (22 points, 11 rebounds).
Still, a Las Vegas line preying on the naivete of bettors installed Tennessee as a 4-point favorite in Friday night’s game, and some of the Vols’ fringe fans will likely shake their head upon seeing the final score.
Fact is there is no shame in losing to Chattanooga, so much has how bad Tennessee looked at times in doing so.
The Vols won’t beat many teams shooting 33 percent from the floor (including 1-of-16 from 3-point range). Further, 18 turnovers to just four assists adds up to an ugly brand of basketball.
It’s a young, unsettled Tennessee team that plays with more energy than purpose at this point of the season.
The Vols have a winnable game next Tuesday night against Appalachian State, which opens the season at Davidson at 8 o’clock on Saturday night.
But after that, “Aloha” will most surely mean hello and goodbye to three losses for the Vols against elite competition in the Maui Invitational Nov. 21-23. Games against powerhouses Wisconsin and either Georgetown or Oregon await Tennessee in its first two matchups.
“I don’t think we’ll be favored in any of them,” said Barnes.
“Reality set in tonight,” Barnes said. “Guys learned they better play their roles.”