Cuonzo Martin figured the key to victory Saturday night at South Carolina would be limiting turnovers. Instead, the key to victory was playing the Gamecocks.
The Vols overcame 21 turnovers, their second-highest total of the season, to beat the lowly Gamecocks 73-64 at Colonial Life Arena. Tennessee committed 25 turnovers in an 18-point loss at Vanderbilt on Jan. 24.
Speaking on his post-game show, Martin described Saturday's turnover-fest as "exhausting," then added: "But we did a lot of good things."
Tennessee, now 16-13 overall and 8-6 in SEC play, won for the sixth time in the last seven games. Carolina, 10-18 and 2-12, lost for the eighth time in its last nine games.
The Gamecocks scored 23 points off of Vol turnovers but generated just 41 points on their own. They shot a chilly 32.4 percent (22 of 68) from the field and 31.6 percent (6 of 19) from 3-point range.
"I thought we did a good job defending from start to finish," Martin said.
When it managed to run its offense Tennessee shot quite well. The Vols nailed 52.2 percent (24 of 46) from the field and 50 percent (7 of 14) from 3. They claimed the backboard battle 38-32 and would've won by a considerable margin if not for the rash of turnovers.
"I wouldn't have thought before I saw the stat sheet that we had 21 turnovers," Martin said. "I thought we played well. I thought we got careless in some spots in the first half and I thought we did late in the game. For the most part, though, I thought we had a complete game."
Point guard Trae Golden managed just 1 assist and committed 6 of Tennessee's turnovers. Power forward Jeronne Maymon added 4. Cameron Tatum was guilty of 4 and fellow wing Jordan McRae 3. Most of the miscues came against South Carolina's press. Normally, Maymon helps out against fullcourt pressure but that was rarely the case in this game.
"What we tried to do tonight was take Jeronne from the backside into the front court, so he didn't have to exert so much energy bringing the ball up the floor," Martin said. "But our guards have got to do a better job of accepting the pressure and handling the ball."
Tennessee scored the game's first five points and led from wire to wire but endured some anxious moments. A 3-pointer by McRae provided an 11-point lead (27-16) with 7:08 left in the half but the Vols went to sleep at this point, allowing the hosts to make a 16-7 run that trimmed the deficit to 34-32 by intermission.
Martin benched Golden at the start of the second half -- not for the turnovers he made on the court but for an angry gesture he made while leaving the court late in the first half.
"When I took him out he threw his towel," Martin explained. "We don't tolerate that. It's unacceptable. He understood, and he apologized after the game. We don't spend a lot of time talking about it; we just made a change. We don't tolerate that here."
Tatum, who came into the game 0 for 12 from 3 in SEC road games, broke the spell by draining a trey to open the second half. A Dwight Miller putback, a Golden 3 and a McRae tip-in bumped the lead to 10 points (44-34) with 15:15 left.
Golden scored eight consecutive Tennessee points at this juncture -- finishing a drive, then adding six free throws after being fouled on three more drives. He then tagged out to freshman Jarnell Stokes, who scored seven consecutive Vol points as the gap grew to 59-46. When Skylar McBee bagged a 3-pointer, Tennessee found itself up by 16 points (62-46) with 6:20 to go.
"I think that (rally) started with Trae Golden really attacking the rim in the second half," Martin said. "Also, Cameron Tatum and Jeronne, Jarnell, Dwight and those guys were getting easy layups because of his (Golden's) dribble-penetration. I thought we kind of separated ourselves in the second half when we started to do that."
The Big Orange sealed the deal by sinking 9 of 11 foul shots down the stretch. Tennessee was 16 of 20 from the line in the second half.
Bruce Ellington scored 19 points and Malik Cooke 17 to pace South Carolina, which fell 69-57 at Knoxville in the earlier meeting.
Golden hit 8 of 9 foul shots and led the Vols with 21 points. McRae added 16 points and Maymon chipped in 14. Tatum scored just 5 points but contributed a team-high 9 rebounds. Fellow wing McRae posted 8 rebounds in 32 relief minutes.
"We need a collective effort (on the backboards)," Martin said. "Our guards have to do a better job. We spend so much time in that area, and our guards have just as much right to get 10 rebounds as anybody else."
Tennessee, now 2-5 in SEC road games, plays its final one Wednesday at LSU. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. Central, 9 Eastern.