It wasn't always pretty, but for the first time this season, the Tennessee Volunteers got the job done on the road, downing South Carolina 66-61 Sunday afternoon in Columbia.
With the Gamecocks starting a pair of 6'5" forwards, you'd have thought the Vols' tandem of Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall would be able to dominate inside, and, well, you'd be half right. Stokes scored 20 points and recorded his 5th straight double-double to lead the Vols to a win, but Hall struggled to guard the smaller players and watched most of the game for the bench. And in the end, what turned the game for the Vols--who started 0/9 from beyond the arc--were the unlikeliest of events: a pair of timely three-point baskets. Well, that and a rebound or two.
After struggling mightily to hold onto the ball against Arkansas and Georgia, the reinsertion of Trae Golden into the lineup settled things down significantly in the first half. However, South Carolina was able to largely match what Tennessee put up and trailed just 32-29 at the break. Stokes' 12 points in the half were countered by nine from Gamecocks freshman Michael Carrera. Carrera was guarded by Kenny Hall early in the game and quickly scored three baskets, prompting Cuonzo Martin to give Hall a seat and Quinton Chievous his first action of SEC play. Chievous would do solid work on Carrera and add a couple of baskets on the offensive end, and the Vols rode him until he fouled with five minutes left in the second half. But Carrera would get his, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Then in the second half, old problems cropped up. In the first six and a half minutes of the second half, Tennessee had six turnovers and no field goals. But the Vols weren't allowing easy shots on the defensive end and trailed only 39-38 when Trae Golden started performing as Tennessee had hoped he would this season. He started with an acrobatic three-point play and got another on the following possession, giving Tennessee a 44-39 lead.
And then the real star of the game showed up. Yemi Makanjuola planted himself in the lane to take a textbook charge and was called for a block by official Anthony Jordan. South Carolina made the basket, missed the free throw, and made a basket off a rebound--they would twice score off their own missed free throws, something that Vols opponents have had too easy a time with in the last two weeks--and Carolina was within one.
Over the next five minutes, the fouls came thick and fast, with the Vols at one point being whistled for four fouls in 50 seconds. Quinton Chievous fouled out, and Josh Richardson picked up his third and fourth. There were points where it looked like Tennessee was intentionally not guarding shooters for fear of fouling, and there was another point when Tennessee shifted to a 2-3 zone. I've seen both occurrences only once before this season: in the blowout loss to Ole Miss, also refereed by Anthony Jordan. And while he hurt the Vols with this flurry of whistles, let no one say he was not an equal opportunity star, as some excellent late-game defense by the Gamecocks somehow led to Tennessee free throws.
At the under four timeout, Chievous was done for the day, Tennessee had just five second half field goals--three by Golden-- a 3-2 zone from Frank Martin's Gamecocks had effectively foiled Tennessee's attempts to get the ball into Jarnell Stokes' hands, and South Carolina led 57-55. But then Jordan McRae, who opened 0/5 from the field, hit a three. South Carolina tried to answer with their own, but Stokes rebounded an errant shot. And then Tennessee again settled for an outside shot, a miss by Trae Golden. But Stokes was again strong on the boards, and he kicked it out to Skylar McBee who hit his second three of the game and put the Vols ahead 61-57.
Unlike on Wednesday, Tennessee finished strong on the defensive end, holding South Carolina without a field goal from the 5:01 mark until Brian Richardson banked in a deep three in the final seconds to cut the Vols lead to 65-61. But it was too late, and the Vols hit one more free throw and walked off the court with their first road win of the season, moving to 4-6 in SEC play and dropping South Carolina to 2-8.
Stokes pulled in the J.P. Prince Stat-Sheet Stuffer Award with 20 points, 10 rebounds (6 offensive!), 2 assists, 4 blocks, and 6 turnovers. Golden also finished strong with 16 points on 4/8 shooting. The rest of the outside shooters were inconsistent. Skylar McBee had a couple of bricks and an airball, while McRae went just 1/7. Yet in the final minutes, with no passes penetrating the zone, those two hit the biggest shots of the game. Richardson was just 1/4 from the field, but he and McRae combined to go 9/10 from the line.
A lot of Tennessee's regulars saw little action, with Hall getting just 11 minutes, Armani Moore getting 8, Yemi Makanjuola getting 4, and Derek Reese getting 3.
The Vols will be back in action Wednesday night, looking for their second road win of the season as they take on Vanderbilt in the architectural disaster known as Memorial Gym.