After being down by nine at half, VMI (6-19, 3-11 SoCon) would not let Chattanooga (19-7, 10-4) get away in the second half. The Keydets closed to within as few as two, and trailed by four after two Branch free throws with 39 seconds to go. UTC hit its final six free throws, however, to ice the win at the foul line.
The Keydets were led in defeat by Branch, who fell one rebound shy of his first career double-double. Julian Eleby chipped in 14 points and QJ Peterson, who was limited to just 10 shot attempts, added 12 and eight rebounds.
UTC got 19 points from Tre’ McLean and six blocks from center Justin Tuoyo en route to the victory.
The Keydets started slowly and UTC had a nine-point lead twice in the first 11 minutes, but the home team chipped away. VMI closed the gap to four, 29-25, in the waning moments before the Mocs finished the period by scoring the final five points to take a nine-point edge into the locker room.
The second period was one of spurts, as the Keydets cut the margin to four twice early in the half, but UTC quickly pushed it back up to eight, 46-38, with 14:07 left. VMI got within two after a 9-3 run, but the Mocs then answered with a 14-6 run to take their biggest lead of the night, 63-53 with 5:46 on the clock.
VMI whittled the margin down, but could get no closer than the four-point margin with 39 seconds to go.
VMI shot just 26.7% in the first half, but rebounded with a 55.2% effort in the second half to finish 24 of 59 (40.7%) from the floor. The Keydets made six of their 22 three’s (27.3%) and 14 of 19 (73.7%) from the foul line.
UTC went 23 of 50 (46%), 8 of 17 (47.1%) and 20 of 26 (76.9%) in those categories.
Particularly of note, however, was the fact that VMI outrebounded Chattanooga by 10, the largest rebound margin the Keydets had posted against a Division I opponent since outrebounding The Citadel by 10 on Jan. 24, 2015.
VMI basketball will return to action Saturday, when the Keydets travel to Birmingham, Ala. to take on Samford. Tip time is set for 7 p.m.
Postgame: VMI coach Dan Earl
“Chattanooga did a very good job tonight making free throws and making timely shots. Tre’ McLean hit some threes at the buzzer which were big shots.”
“What I tried to convey to our guys is that it’s hard anytime you lose -as coaches and players certainly we want to win- but we fought tonight and I am proud of our guys for doing it from the opening tip to the end at the buzzer. Sometime your shots don’t fall or somebody from the other team gets hot and makes some shots, or it’s not your night, but I’m proud of their effort. I think we made a step in the right direction and got better.”
“They did some things defensively and were trapping the basketball and I thought QJ Peterson made some good decisions and it takes some time to adjust to what’s going on. We were able to get some pretty decent shots particularly in the second half. It you want to take it to the next level and when it, you have to make your layups and those kind of things. But we fought hard.”
“I thought Armani Branch played very well. He was diving off the ball screens hard and he can stretch the floor a little bit as well and make some outside shots. He missed a few layups, but he kept his head up and moved on whether it was defensively or making good passes.”