(ASHEVILLE, NC) – When a city or municipality is in trouble, all of the attention turns to the mayor to solve the problem.
And when the top-seeded Chattanooga Mocs found their Southern Conference tournament title hopes and likely NCAA Tournament future in peril, they turned to the player that they respectfully call “The Mayor.”
David Jean-Baptiste hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from 35 feet as time expired to give Chattanooga a 64-63 win over Furman in an overtime thriller at the Ingles Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Championship at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
Jean-Baptiste earned the nickname “The Mayor” more for his longevity than because of his ability to solve problems. He was a freshman in 2016, and has been part of the SoCon for longer than eight of the league’s ten coaches. His game-winner cemented his legendary status and earned the Mocs their 12th SoCon tournament title in school history.
“It was surreal,” Jean-Baptiste said about an hour after the game-winner and he and his teammates had removed the nets. “I knew I had four seconds left, tried to put myself in the best position possible just to get the shot up, and it felt like it took forever for the ball to reach the basket. But once I saw it hit the net, I couldn’t feel no more after that. It was unbelievable.”
The Mocs found themselves in need of a miracle because Furman senior guard Mike Bothwell had given the Paladins a 63-61 lead with a driving layup with four seconds left. It was the final basket for Bothwell who had all but willed Furman back into the game, leading them back from a seven point deficit in the final four minutes before hitting a step back three to tie the game at 51-51 with four seconds left in regulation.
“Things weren’t looking good late second half, and I kept trusting, just kept trying to believe in the team and my teammates,” Bothwell said. “We lost that game in one second, and such is life, but I couldn’t be more proud of my teammates, how we responded, and we battled.”
Bothwell looked destined to be the hero to take the Paladins to their first NCAA Tournament since 1980 until Jean-Baptiste’s heroics changed things. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Malachi Smith, who had missed a potential game-winner at the end of regulation, was glad for his Haitian teammate to take the final shot because it was one he practices.
“Believe it or not, Dave shoots those before practice,” Smith said. “I was literally looking at him like, ‘Just shoot it, bro,’ and when it went in, I didn’t know if it was real or not.” How did he know it was real? “I just looked at him, and when he took his jersey off, I was like, ‘OK!’ He’s a great player, and he just did what he does.””
In an interesting twist, Jean-Baptiste was almost not only not on the court, but not on the team. He entered the transfer portal in the offseason, and contemplated leaving the game of basketball all together. In a last second move he contacted head coach Lamont Paris and asked if he could return. He returned, won the team a championship, and will likely cause the coach to put pen to paper.
“Just unbelievable,” Paris said. “I always talk about this book that I’m gonna write when this is all said and done, and the longest chapter will be titled, ‘DJB III.’ Its surreal what has transpired, the good, the bad, the ugly, we’ve been all over the place as a team, and for it to come down to that, I literally am now committed to writing that book and telling that story.”
For every winner in an instant classic, there is a heartbroken team in the other locker room.
“This is one of the hardest things I’ve been through, and the only thing I know how to do in life and the hard moments is give God the glory when it’s good, and give God the glory when it’s tough,” said Furman coach Bob Richey. “We gotta learn from it. I really believe as much as this hurts right now, this will propel us forward in some direction. We’ll be back and we’ll be back in this game, and we’re going to cut those nets down. Congrats to them (Chattanooga). They won a heck of a league tournament.”
Silvio De Sousa led Chattanooga with 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Jean-Baptiste tallied 13 points and Smith added 12 points to round out the double-digit night for the Mocs. Bothwell led Furman with 24 points and Alex Hunter added 12 points.
Chattanooga will learn their postseason destination on Selection Sunday, March 13, when the 68-team field is announced.