Junior point guard Trae Golden, back in action after missing two games with a strained hamstring, ran the offense adequately and scored 16 points as the Vols beat South Carolina 66-61 Sunday in Columbia. The win snapped an 0-6 start in road games while improving Tennessee's record to 12-10 overall and 4-6 in SEC play. With the loss, South Carolina slips to 12-11 and 2-8.
Speaking on the post-game show, Golden pronounced the hamstring "as good as it's going to get," adding that he is "just trying to get going, be aggressive, and that's what I did."
Golden, who made 4 of 8 floor shots and 8 of 10 foul shots, committed just two turnovers in 27 backup minutes at the point. That earned praise from his head coach.
"He did a really good job of running the team, directing traffic," Cuonzo Martin said. "He's a scoring point guard who can score the ball. That's one thing I talked to him about: Score the ball, be aggressive, look for your offense. I don't want Trae Golden trying to get 10 assists a night. I want him to be aggressive scoring. When he's scoring the ball he facilitates the offense, then he gets assists. But I want him thinking scoring first."
The Vols won in unlikely fashion. After missing their first 10 attempts from 3-point range, they nailed three of four with the game on the line in the final six minutes.
Tennessee also got key plays from some unlikely heroes. Skylar McBee, who has struggled from 3-point range all season, nailed Tennessee's first trey with 5:35 left, turning a 52-51 deficit into a 54-52 lead.
When the Gamecocks surged ahead 57-55 moments later, Tennessee took the lead for good on a 3-pointer from the right corner by Jordan McRae, who was 0 for 5 from the field prior to that shot. McBee then drained another 3 — this one from the left corner — bumping the lead to 61-57 with 2:16 remaining.
Golden, mired in a season-long slump from the field and the foul line, widened the gap to 63-58 by hitting two free throws with 46.8 seconds left. McRae then sealed the win with a pair of foul shots that pushed the lead to 65-58 with 24.2 seconds remaining.
Conceding that this has been "somewhat of a roller-coaster season," Martin credited his team's toughness and perseverance in that it "found a way to get a win tonight."
Tennessee got unexpected help from 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous, who hadn't left the bench for nine consecutive games. When Michael Carrera scored seven of Carolina's first 12 points, Chievous came in and limited him to two points the rest of the half. Chievous also contributed 4 points, a rebound and a steal before fouling out after just 11 minutes on the court.
"I knew coming into this game that Quinton Chievous would have to play in this game because of his toughness level," Martin said. "He's an undersized guard, just like Carrera, but Quinton battles."
D'montre Edwards, who had played just four minutes in the previous 11 games, also saw meaningful action against the Gamecocks. He finished with three rebounds in six minutes.
"It didn't faze me that Quinton hadn't played because the one thing about Quinton Chievous, as well as D'Montre, is that they continue to practice hard to get ready to play," Martin said.
Sophomore post Jarnell Stokes continued his productive play for the Vols. The 6-foot-8, 270-pounder posted his fifth consecutive double-double and sixth in the past seven games ... 20 points and 10 rebounds. Stokes, who also contributed 4 blocks and 2 assists, was 6 of 9 from the field and 8 of 13 from the foul line. Half of his 10 rebounds came off the offensive glass.
"These last five games he's been playing at a high level, an elite level, like an all-league guy," Martin said. "He's rebounding the ball, scoring the ball. Now these last three games he's done a good job of making his free throws. He's playing a lot harder ... he's attacking the glass and keeping balls alive."
Carrera led the Gamecocks with 18 points. Brian Richardson added 17. Tennessee did a nice defensive job on Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington, limiting him to 6 points and 1-of-9 shooting from the field.
Tennessee hit a respectable 43.9 percent (18 of 41) from the floor, while limiting South Carolina to 39.2 percent. Both teams struggled from 3 — Tennessee finishing 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) and South Carolina 3 of 16 (18.8 percent). The Vols cashed in big-time at the foul line, sinking 27 of 37 attempts (73.0 percent). Carolina was 18 of 25 (72.0 percent).
Despite a considerable size advantage against the Gamecocks, whose tallest starter is 6-feet-5, Tennessee won the backboards by a scant 32-30 margin. The Vols again struggled with their ball-handling, recording 18 turnovers compared to just 10 assists.
Tennessee returns to action Wednesday night, facing Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. Central (8 p.m. Eastern) in Nashville.