When Skylar McBee showed up for Tennessee's preseason media day sporting a scraggly mustache, smug reporters laughingly dubbed him "McStache."
The South Carolina Gamecocks were in no mood to laugh Wednesday night, however, after McBee burned them for a career-high 18 points in sparking a 69-57 Volunteer victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols improve to 12-12 overall, 4-5 in SEC play. Carolina slips to 9-14, 1-8.
McBee, a 6-foot-3 former walk-on from Rutledge, missed his first two shots and was scoreless through the first 17 minutes. Then, with the Gamecocks leading 23-21 and three minutes left to the break, he found the range.
McBee hit a 3-pointer at 2:54. And another at 2:01. And another at 1:15. Following a 3-pointer by teammate Cameron Tatum that gave him 1,000 career points, McBee was fouled after stealing the ball. He sank both free throws with 4.3 seconds left to give the Vols a 35-27 halftime lead. All told, McBee had scored 11 points during a half-ending 14-4 run that turned a two-point Vol deficit into an eight-point lead.
"I kinda got to feelin' it," he said in his familiar drawl. "I thought we did a good job of movin' the ball around. I got some good open looks, and I ended up knockin' 'em down."
Like most shooters, McBee is terribly streaky. He knew when that first shot fell that the next two probably would, as well.
"It was one of those things where you hit one and build your confidence a little bit," he said. "Then you fire up another one, and it goes in. Then you're really not even thinkin' about it. If you get open space you're firin' it up."
McBee was so jacked up at the start of the second half that he fired an off-balance 3-pointer from the right corner. It swished, too, bumping Tennessee's lead to 43-30.
"I don't know about that," McBee said. "Coach (Cuonzo) Martin is all about taking good shots but if I hadn't hit a couple I probably don't take that one."
Making just his second career start in his 88th college game, McBee seemed a little less keyed up than he had been in Start No. 1 last Saturday.
"Yeah, a little bit of the nerves was gone," he said. "But, like I've said: It ain't about startin' or finishin'. It's about five guys workin' as a unit while we're out there, whether those minutes come early or late."
In this case, his minutes came early and late. Because he is a superior free-throw shooter, McBee has worked his way into the late-game lineup. Wednesday night, with Tennessee leading just 65-57 and 1:45 remaining, he sank four consecutive free throws to ice the win.
McBee wasn't the Vols' only late-game hero, however. Kenny Hall and Trae Golden came up big in the clutch, as well.
Tennessee built its biggest lead at 49-34 with 13:44 left only to see Carolina make a 21-9 run that trimmed the deficit to three points (58-55) with 4:07 remaining.
Hall, starting in place of freshman Jarnell Stokes (day-to-day due to a wrist injury), made a free throw at this point. Hall then stole the ball to set up a Golden drive that resulted in an acrobatic five-foot basket with just two seconds left on the shot clock. Fouled on the play, Golden converted the three-point bid to widen the gap to 62-55 with 2:53 left.
"I was just trying to make an aggressive play and get to the rim," Golden said. "I'm glad it went in. I felt as if we really took control of the game then."
Probably so. Carolina never recovered.
"Whenever you hold a team for 33 seconds, then they score," Golden said, "it's going to take something out of you."
After a three-point play by Jeronne Maymon and two McBee free throws, Hall blocked back-to-back Carolina shots with 47 and 44 seconds left to bury any comeback hopes the Gamecocks might have had.
Asked about the consecutive blocks, Hall wasted no words: "They put the ball up, and I blocked it. They got the ball again and went back up. I blocked it again."
Back in the starting lineup after a one-game absence, Golden finished with 14 points, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 36 minutes at the point. Maymon chipped in 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Hall scored just 4 points but led all rebounders with 10 and all shot-blockers with 3.
Still, the key Vol on this night was the sharp-shooting McBee, who finished 4 of 7 from the field (all 3-point tries) and 6 of 6 from the foul line.
"He's a guy who can make shots," Martin said. "You have to identify him when he's on the floor."
Clearly, South Carolina had difficulty identifying him Wednesday night.
Maybe it was the mustache.
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