Insert your joke about snowy conditions outside and a red hot Kevin Punter inside.
South Carolina was 17-1 and had done much of that work with defense. After a free throw shooting contest left the Vols with a one point lead at halftime, I'm really not sure what the Gamecocks could have done differently in the second half. Tennessee was 1 for 9 from the three point line in the first half. Then they splashed their first seven threes of the second half, finishing 10 of 21 for the game on 9 of 12 in the second half. Devon Baulkman hit a big one to get the party started on UT's first offensive possession of the half, Detrick Mostella added a pair to keep South Carolina at bay, but the rest of the day belonged to Kevin Punter.
Playing point guard but then also getting increased minutes off the ball thanks to Armani Moore and Shembari Phillips taking turns at the point, Punter repeatedly found good looks thanks to strong design and execution. And he didn't mess around: 6 of 11 from the arc, 8 of 16 on the day, and 14 of 15 at the free throw line. It adds up to 36 points in a nine point Tennessee win.
You want to use the word "Loftonesque" to describe this performance, right? Punter actually did him one better today. Both Chris Lofton's and Jordan McRae's career high at Tennessee was 35 points. Punter's 36 eclipsed his previous best by five and set a new high mark for the Vols in the Pearl/Cuonzo/Tyndall/Barnes run. You have to go back to Ron Slay dropping 38 on New Mexico in 2003 to find a better day for a Tennessee player; in conference play it's the most since Allan Houston's 37 on Ole Miss in 1990.
The most important sequence came with six minutes to play and the Vols up seven. Credit South Carolina, known more for defense than offense, for hitting a number of clutch shots to stay within range for most of the second half despite Tennessee's insane shooting percentage. But the Vols essentially turned out the lights when Robert Hubbs made a tough two to push the lead to nine, Devon Baulkman stole the inbounds pass, and Punter was wide open for yet another three to push the lead to a dozen.
If South Carolina stays the course, this is going to be a really good win. There's just not much even a good defense can do when the other team shoots 75% from the arc in the second half and 30 of 32 from the free throw line. The Vols were the best free throw shooting team in conference play coming into today; I think 93.8% will do.
Tennessee goes back above .500 at 10-9 (3-4), and Rick Barnes gets his first win over a ranked team with the Vols. Today's performance certainly makes the Vanderbilt game the glaring exception, with competitiveness more and more the rule. The Vols will be on the road next week, at Alabama and then at TCU for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, with Kentucky coming to Knoxville the following Tuesday. But the Vols now have their second quality win of the season, and are fueling a belief that they'll stay in the fight all year. And while Tennessee keeps itself in the early NIT conversation, Kevin Punter is forcing his way into the early All-SEC conversation with the best day on Rocky Top in more than a decade.