Wednesday night's victory at Thompson-Boling Arena was no thing of beauty. In fact, it was downright ugly. Still, it snapped a three-game losing streak and moved the Big Orange one step closer to earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
"Obviously, we do need to continue to upgrade our level of play," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "I'm definitely not satisfied with the quality of play."
Tennessee, now 16-10 overall and 6-5 in SEC play, again exhibited its maddening knack for playing up or down to the level of competition ... in this case down. The Gamecocks, now 13-11 and 4-7, came in with five losses in their previous six games and starting forward Lakeem Jackson sidelined by injury. Still, Tennessee never built a comfortable lead, due to pitiful shooting from the foul line (21 of 35) and 16 turnovers.
"The turnovers were just some sloppy play, and had a lot to do with the margin," Pearl grumbled. "When you turn it over 16 times, you're not going to beat the best teams on the schedule."
Typical of their Jekyll and Hyde personality, the Vols played one really good half on defense (the first), one really good half on offense (the second) and one really good half on the backboards (the first).
The initial 20 minutes saw Tennessee limit the Gamecocks to 25 percent shooting (8 of 32) and dominate the boards 30-17. The Vols led just 33-25 at the break, however, by virtue of shooting a mere 37.9 percent themselves.
"I thought defensively, particularly in the first half, we made it difficult for South Carolina," Pearl said. "They shot 25 percent and only made three 2-point baskets, so I thought our defense was terrific."
Although Tennessee picked up its offense after intermission, shooting 52.2 percent (12 of 23), the Vols offset that by allowing Carolina to win the second-half backboard battle 25-18.
After noting that Tennessee had 21 defensive rebounds and South Carolina just five offensive rebounds in the first half, Pearl added: "But the second half they had 12 (offensive) and we had 13 (defensive), so the second half we did not do a very good job rebounding the basketball. I thought that was a big part of why South Carolina outscored us by two (42-40) in the second half."
Typical of the Vols' recent uneven performances, everything they did well was nullified by something they did poorly. Consider:
Senior point guard Melvin Goins matched his season high for assists (6) but also matched his season high for turnovers (5).
"I asked Melvin to pass more and shoot less," Pearl said with an approving nod. "But I'm not happy with the turnovers."
Freshman forward Tobias Harris just missed a double-double with 10 points and 8 rebounds but failed to record an assist and also finished with 5 turnovers.
Senior center Brian Williams produced 10 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists but, shooting mostly from point-blank range, hit just 3 of 9 shots.
Junior wing Cameron Tatum scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, with 3 assists and 2 steals but went 1 of 6 from the foul line. Counting the front end of a critical one-and-one he missed in the final 30 seconds of last Saturday's loss at Florida, Tatum has misfired on six of his last seven free throws.
"There's no question that missing that free throw against Florida was a factor in that," Pearl said. "That's OK for a freshman or sophomore. It's not OK for Cam. He's been here four years.
"It was really good then to see him - after he missed the free throws - on two different occasions, he had a defensive spurt. Cameron made two spectacular defensive plays ... effort plays."
Just about the only Vol whose stat line didn't resemble a good news/bad news joke was junior wing Scotty Hopson. He made 7 of 16 shots, including several highlight-reel dunks, and sank 6 of 7 foul shots en route to a game-high 23 points.
"I thought Scotty did a great job attacking the rim in that zone," Pearl said. "He got to the rim a number of times, and it was good to see Scotty get to the foul line."
Tennessee limited South Carolina to one basket in the game's first 7 1/2 minutes en route to an 11-4 lead. The Gamecocks used an 11-3 spurt to ease ahead 15-14 but Tennessee surged in front 33-25 by halftime.
The Vols widened the gap to 39-27 early in the second half but Carolina clawed back to within 44-42. Reserves scored Tennessee's next three baskets - a reverse layup by Steven Pearl, a 3-pointer by Skylar McBee and a basket by Josh Bone - as the lead moved to 51-44.
After a bucket by South Carolina, Tatum apparently motivated himself by missing two free throws with 10:24 to play. He promptly nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing at 10:00, then scored on a steal and driving dunk as the lead swelled to 56-46 with 9:35 remaining.
Tennessee built its biggest lead at 66-53 on a Kenny Hall tip-in with 3:06 remaining but Carolina drained a trio of 3s and trailed just 71-67 with 17.3 seconds left. Bone hit a pair of free throws with 7.7 seconds left to finally seal the deal.