Back and forth we went, for 33 minutes. The Gamecocks were cold, and Devan Downey was on ice: after a 5 of 20 shooting display in Knoxville, South Carolina's best player followed it up with a 4 of 18 performance today in Columbia. Carolina shot 31.7% from the floor and 19.2% from the three point line, just 5 of 26.
But the Vols couldn't hold on to the ball long enough to take advantage: 19 turnovers, an SEC high for the Big Orange, allowed South Carolina 63 shot attempts to the Vols' 41. And so we traded blows, often in ugly fashion, neither team leading by more than six points.
But with under seven minutes to play in a one point game, South Carolina flatlined. And when the Vols responded with just one of their patented runs, the game was over.
It was a vintage Bruce Pearl run, sparked by back-to-back OOBTOs that sent Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince to the free throw line after they stole the ball. Then, after a Devan Downey three cut the Vols' lead to 51-50, Carolina went almost five minutes without scoring, and Tennessee ran away. Kenny Hall did his part with a giant follow-slam, and Prince got another basket at the rim...and then the Vols, despite shooting 19 of 32 (59.4%) at the line, put the Gamecocks away with free throws. Carolina took 23 more shots, but the Vols shot 17 more free throws, and that was the difference in the final five minutes: while Carolina couldn't hit a shot, the Vols made enough free throws to put it away.
Another slow start, this time as a result of turnovers and offensive rebounds from Carolina, saw the Vols down 28-24 at halftime. Once again, Bruce Pearl started Melvin Goins and Bobby Maze together, with J.P. Prince at the four. Goins was off today, no points in 16 minutes. But Maze was at his best, scoring a season-high 16 points to go with 3 assists in 33 minutes of play.
And once again, the Vols came out of the locker room with a bigger lineup and more of a purpose at the rim to start the second half, and outrebounded Carolina by 9 in the second half, 39-27 for the game. Wayne Chism had an 11-9, Brian Williams had 5-7 in just 14 minutes, J.P. Prince had a 10-7, and Kenny Hall scored 8 points. Tennessee's big men again took it to Carolina, and again Carolina had no answers.
If Tennessee doesn't turn it over, this game isn't close...which is comforting, because the Vols didn't play all that well for 33 minutes, and still won by eight points on the road. Tennessee is becoming more and more disciplined on offense, shooting 48.8% from the floor and taking only 11 three pointers, repeatedly forcing the ball into the lane against a team playing zone once again.
Tennessee gets its 20th win, and moves another step closer to the "lock" category than the "should be in" category. The Vols go to 8-4 in the SEC and set up a huge showdown game Tuesday night in Gainesville against 8-4 Florida. Bruce Pearl is now five for five on 20 win seasons in Knoxville, an incredible feat. And his Vols are getting it done on the road, even when they're not at their best for most of the game.