An unlikely champion silences the critics

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- As the final seconds ticked down Monday night in the Southern Conference championship game, a guy stood behind the Chattanooga bench holding up a sign that read simply: Believe.

"Unbelievable" would have worked, too.

Who was this Chattanooga team about to advance to just its second NCAA tournament since that magical Sweet 16 run a dozen years ago?

Even Mocs coach John Shulman admitted that the only people who believed back in January that this would have been remotely possible were the guys in his locker room and maybe his wife and three sons.

"My wife and children love me regardless," explained Shulman, whose Mocs started out 4-10 overall and 0-3 in the league.

But on Monday night the love was flowing in McKenzie Arena as the pro-Chattanooga crowd basked in the Mocs' 80-69 win over College of Charleston, another reminder that March has a way of both defining and deflating a team's season in the realm of college hoops.

The Mocs (18-16) were about as schizophrenic as it gets this season. Their schedule was brutal to start the season, and they lost five in a row to the likes of Tennessee, Missouri, Memphis and Southern California.

There was a lackluster home loss to Wofford in early January, followed by five straight wins, then a blowout loss at home to Davidson and another stretch when the Mocs won six of seven games.

Coming into this tournament, they had lost three in a row.

Granted, the venue was a friendly one for Chattanooga, but this was supposed to be the Stephen Curry Show. And if by some chance the darling of last year's NCAA tournament did happen to bow out early here, then The Citadel or perhaps College of Charleston offered the most compelling story lines.

But Chattanooga?

"We stayed together through thick and thin and stayed together when nobody believed in us … and did something special," Shulman said.

He made a sort of victory lap around the arena when it was over. One of his five senior starters, guard Keyron Sheard, jumped up on the media row table to pump his fist to the crowd, only to slip and fall.

He lay there for a moment and soaked it all in.

"We've been through so much this year and continued to battle through anything and everything," said Sheard, who led Chattanooga with 18 points.

There was some irony in Shulman's salute to the crowd. He wasn't the most popular guy around Chattanooga this basketball season. The fans were down on him and down on his team.

And when Curry and Davidson stormed into McKenzie Arena back in late January, a season-high crowd of 9,234 turned out and people got exactly what they came to see, according to Shulman, the disgust in his voice still obvious.

"They didn't come to watch us that night. They came to watch Curry, and he put on a show," Shulman said.

Curry dropped 32 points on the Mocs, who managed to channel that disappointment in a positive way.

Even now, Shulman sounds almost bitter about some of the things he and his team weathered.

Make that bitter and ecstatic at the same time.

"When you're a coach, people are going to love me now," Shulman said. "They didn't love me when we were down 22-2 to Western Carolina. There weren't a whole lot of good things said about me then. After the Davidson game, I was stupid. I heard that one, too.

"I'm not stupid tonight."

In a microcosm of their topsy-turvy season, the Mocs were really good for parts of the first half, allowed the Cougars to tie the score at halftime, then reeled off a knockout-size 20-0 run to start the second half.

College of Charleston didn't score its first points of the second half until more than six and a half minutes were gone.

But even then, Chattanooga had to hold off a frantic charge by College of Charleston, which was fueled by 31 points from Tony White Jr. The Cougars (26-8) got within five points with eight and a half minutes to play.

Chattanooga had an answer, though, highlighted by senior forward Kevin Goffney's soaring one-handed dunk-back of a missed shot.

"We just refused to lose, man," Goffney said.

Or, as College of Charleston's Andrew Goudelock put it, "Every time we did something right, they did something better."

Long after the celebration had ended and the Mocs had cut down the nets Monday, Shulman walked back across the court and stole a quick glance up into the stands.

There sat his brother, Jim.

They already had their celebration set. They were headed to the Waffle House, which is the same way they celebrated four years ago when Chattanooga earned its first bid to the NCAA Tournament under Shulman.

"He sort of pulled a Jim Valvano, ran around the court and celebrated, went and did his press conference, and I was the only one left when he got back out here," Jim quipped. "I said, 'What do you want to do? He said, 'I'm hungry,' so we went to Waffle House.

"I think he had hash browns, scattered and smothered."

It's a delicacy Shulman only allows himself for these kind of moments.

"I don't care how long you do it," Shulman said. "If you go to the NCAA tournament, there's nothing more special in this profession."

Said like a coach who believes.

Chris Low covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com.