CULLOWHEE, NC (WRCB) -- Zaccheus Mason recorded a double-double to lead three University of Tennessee at Chattanooga players in double figures as the Mocs beat Western Carolina 81-72 at the Ramsey Activity Center Thursday night.
UTC led wire-to-wire to stay alive in the chase for the fourth and final bye in the Southern Conference Tournament. Appalachian State beat Samford 70-67 in double overtime Thursday, meaning a Mocs' win and Samford loss on Saturday will give Chattanooga the first-round bye.
Mason scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the Mocs, who visit Appalachian State on Saturday to wrap up the regular season. Samford will play at Western Carolina.
"After last Thursday night, it could have been over. Instead we're going into App with a lot to play for," UTC head coach John Shulman said on his post-game radio show. "We'll keep worrying about Chattanooga and not about what else happens. I'm proud of our kids. This was a big win for us in here tonight."
Chattanooga (13-17, 8-9 in SoCon) jumped out to a 12-0 lead in the first six minutes, and pushed the advantage to as many as 19 in the final two minutes of the first half.
Western Carolina (12-18, 8-9) rallied to pull within 43-29 at halftime, then trimmed the deficit down to 66-64 with just under five minutes to play. The Catamounts again got within two at 74-72 with 1:23 left, but Chattanooga scored the game's final seven points to seal the huge road win.
"There's nothing better than winning on the road," Shulman. "The reason we had a chance to do this is because of the great start we got off to. We made it a conscious effort to throw the first punch. We played great defense and got some easy baskets, and our guys did a great job."
Ronrico White finished with 19 points and Gee McGhee added 12.
The Mocs shot 54.2-percent from the field for the game and hit 26-of-39 free throws. They turned 13 Western Carolina turnovers into 20 points, and rode Mason to a 38-20 scoring advantage in the paint.
"Six weeks ago, I'm not sure we would have won this game. The roles probably would have been reversed," Mason said. "But this team has come a long way. We've been through a lot and we've grown up a lot, and we're turning it up right now."
Brandon Boggs led the Catamounts with 21 points, while Tawaski King added 12. Trey Sumler, Western's talented point guard, mustered just 10 points, eight below his team-leading season average.
The Southern Conference Tournament will run from March 7-10 in Asheville, NC. The top four teams in the league get byes through Friday's first round. No team has ever won the tournament without a first round bye.