CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - John Shulman could only shake his head.
In a season filled with frustration, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head coach watched starting point guard Keegan Bell suffer a freak injury at Thursday morning's film session.
Then he watched his senior captain shake it off to turn in the best performance of his career.
Bell dished out a career-high 16 assists and finished one rebound shy of his second triple-double of the season in the Mocs' 85-50 drubbing of Longwood in the opening round of the annual Dr. Pepper Classic at McKenzie Arena.
It was a performance that almost didn't happen.
"We're leaving film session to get ready to walk on the court and a rib popped out," Shulman said after the game. "He got hurt getting up out of his chair. I didn't think he was going to play.
"It's been a good couple of weeks."
Bell didn't know what the injury was, but said it took his breath away and made it difficult to move.
"I wanted to sit back down when it happened, but I couldn't," Bell said. "I tried to go out to shoot around because I didn't want to be the guy who pulled a rib out standing up from film. I mean, what a tough guy, right?
"I took one jump shot and felt excruciating pain. It stayed that way until about five minutes before pre-game warm-ups when I was on the ground and (athletic trainer) B.J. (Leyser) was literally on top of me, pushing me into the ground and popping it back into place."
With a new pep in his step, Bell provided the sizzle and pop in a second-half explosion that buried the Lancers.
Leading by just two at the break, Chattanooga (5-8) came alive to shoot nearly 58-percent from the floor, including 8-of-14 behind the 3-point arc, to outscore Longwood 53-20 in the final 20 minutes. The Lancers shot just 14.3-percent from the field in the second half.
Omar Wattad scored 15 of his game-high 18 points after intermission to lead five Mocs in double figures. Zacchareus Mason, Ricky Taylor, Jahmal Burroughs and Bell all added ten points apiece.
Drazen Zlovaric chipped in nine points and ten rebounds for Chattanooga, which held a 51-27 edge on the glass.
"I think we have a chance to be pretty good, but until you get a chance to experience success, you really don't know," Shulman said. "We've had to have faith that we're getting better without any proof, and that's hard.
"But tonight I think we got some proof."
Bell finished one assist shy of Gary Robb's school record, which was set 19 years to the day in another Dr. Pepper Classic opener. One more rebound would have given the Huntsville, Alabama, product a second triple-double, a feat he achieved in a loss at the College of Charleston earlier this month.
"You have to have a comfort level out there, and for the first time besides the Charleston game, I felt like I knew where everyone was at and everyone knew what they were doing," Bell said. "We just were really clicking. We were in the right spots and doing the right things.
"That's how we expect to play."
Taylor crossed the 1,000-point mark for his career in the second half, becoming just the 18th Chattanooga player in the Division I era to surpass the scoring milestone.
Antwan Carter led Longwood (4-9) with 15 points. David Robinson chipped in 13 points and Tristan Carey 12 for the Lancers.
The Mocs advance to play Utah Valley in Friday's championship game at 7 p.m. ET. The Wolverines (7-8) beat Hampton 42-40 in Thursday's early game.
Hampton and Longwood will play in the consolation game Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
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