GREATEST MOMENTS | Chattanooga mocked Illinois in 1997 to reach Sweet 16


UTC-greatest-momentThe pregame ritual by the Illinois men’s basketball team wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. It’s what the Fighting Illini had done all season.

But Chattanooga took it personally, leading to the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.

On March 16, 1997, the Mocs stunned No. 6-seed Illinois 75-63 in the NCAA Tournament. They joined Cleveland State in 1986 as the only No. 14 seeds to advance to the Sweet 16.

While Cleveland State’s run in 1986 was special, Chattanooga’s race to the Sweet 16 in 1997 was more exciting. It was also more unlikely.

The Mocs — the school changed its nickname from Moccasins a month earlier — won the Southern Conference, but entered the NCAAs with 10 losses.

That including two to the only “power” schools they played, Missouri and Penn State. And in their three previous NCAA appearances that decade the Mocs lost each time by an average of 27 points.

But they pulled out a 73-70 win over No. 3-seeded Georgia in the first round, after jumping out to a 15-0 lead.

The Mocs claimed they heard Illinois players chanting “Final Four! Final Four!” in the locker room after 10th-seeded Providence upset Duke in the first Southeast Regional game at Charlotte Coliseum, apparently in anticipation of an easier regional semifinal matchup.

“They were two locker rooms away,” UTC coach Mack McCarthy said after the game. “I’ve never heard anything like it. Our kids took offense to that.”

“It was like we weren’t even there,” added Willie Young, who led the Mocs with 15 points. “They thought we were going out there for a scrimmage game or something. We just wanted to come out there and show them what we were all about.”

The Illini led by four with 7:48 left in the game when UTC took over. The Mocs closed with a 20-4 run, led by Young and Johnny Taylor. The Mocs held Illinois to one field goal in the final 10:09.

The Mocs’ run ended in a 71-65 loss to Providence, which was led by God Shammgod. He keyed a 15-2 run by the Friars in the final eight minutes that sent them to the regional final. They took eventual national champion Arizona to overtime before losing, 96-92.

Meanwhile, Taylor went on to an NBA career after helping a basketball program that won two Division II national championships establish itself in Division I.

“This kind of thing can obviously put us on the basketball map a little bit more,” McCarthy said. “I’m just pleased we were the ones who were able to do it.”

• UTC Athletics Hall of Fame

Photo courtesy of UTC Athletics

• Monday: Campbell
• Tuesday: Central Arkansas and Central Florida
• Wednesday: Central Michigan and College of Charleston
• Thursday: Charleston Southern and Charlotte
• Friday: Chattanooga and Chicago State

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.