It wasn't always pretty, but the Tennessee Volunteers made the plays they needed to close out their tenth straight victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks, winning 69-57 in Knoxville to move back to .500 on the season at 12-12, 4-5 in SEC play. With star freshman Jarnell Stokes sidelined with a wrist injury and Jeronne Maymon in foul trouble, the Vols needed a stretch of hot outside shooting to gain a lead and some timely defense from Kenny Hall to hold off a late charge by the Cocks.
Without Stokes, Tennessee struggled early, with the Vols trailing South Carolina for thirteen straight minutes in the first half. The Vols' deficit never exceeded five points, thanks to Jordan McRae showing his good side, leading Tennessee with eight early points on a pair of threes and a driving baseline bucket. But McRae also showed his bad side, taking a couple bad shots and picking up a pair of early fouls, one offensive, and the Vols weren't able to get in rhythm for most of the first frame.
But then, trailing 23-21, Skylar McBee hit a three. And on the next possession, he hit another. And on the next possession, he hit another. And on the next possession, Cameron Tatum hit his own trey. To top it off, McBee got a steal with time running out on the half and got to the line off the break, adding two more to give Tennessee, who hadn't led by more than two points in the first 18 minutes, a 35-27 halftime lead.
Tennessee stayed hot to start the second half, as McBee hit his fourth consecutive three-pointer and Tennessee extended their run spanning both halves to 16-3 (or 22-7, if you prefer) to take a 43-30 lead. At one point, Tennessee had made seven straight three-point shots and had 13 assists on 14 made field goals, and it looked as though the Vols would cruise to victory.
But South Carolina would not go quietly. They got a couple extra possessions from some comical officiating and cut into the lead. And then they got a couple extra possessions by forcing Tennessee turnovers, and they cut into the lead. By the time the Gamecocks had held Tennessee to over seven minutes without a field goal and cut the lead to four points, things ceased being comical.
Josh Richardson broke the Tennessee drought, and the Vols extended the lead to eight, but Bruce Ellington led South Carolina right back, and the under four timeout saw the Gamecocks trailing just 58-55 and poised to take over.
But a clutch drive with the shot clock running down from Trae Golden yielded a three-point play and a little breathing room, and then Jeronne Maymon added his own three-point play after coming out on the right side of the random block/charge generator for the first time of the night. On the other side, Kenny Hall got steals, blocked shots, and generally kept South Carolina from hanging around during a 7-0 run that extended the lead back to double digits and salted away the game for a young Tennessee team that hasn't been able to avoid extended periods of sloppy play but has figured out lately how to win an ugly game.
McBee, in just his second start, led the Vols with 18 points, with Golden adding 14 and Maymon 12. Hall grabbed 10 boards and swatted three shots (officially) for Tennessee, with Maymon and Tatum both adding six rebounds.
After consecutive home games with the two teams at the bottom of the SEC standings, Tennessee's schedule toughens back up Saturday, as they will visit #8 Florida in search of their first road victory of the season.