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Tennessee’s At-Large Hopes End at South Carolina

The Gamecocks run away in the final 15 minutes, pushing the Vols off the bubble and into a crowded SEC field in pursuit of the NIT.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Eventually the smaller losses catch up to you and you have to find a big win to balance them out. Because the Vols lost far more winnable games at Ole Miss and Mississippi State then at home to Georgia, the last week turned into must-win mode. And when the Vols couldn’t beat Vanderbilt in Knoxville to keep things out of the selection committee’s hands, they had to have this one today at South Carolina to have the right resume to get in the room at all.

But the Gamecocks were a far tougher test, their top five defense feasting on a Tennessee offense with no Jordan Bowden and serious point guard questions. The Vols tried to cure what ailed them with Kwe Parker and Lamonte Turner, but it didn’t work at all against South Carolina’s smothering defense. Tennessee was down 18 early, cut it back to eight at halftime, and were down 43-38 after Admiral Schofield hit the Vols’ first three of the day at the under 16 timeout.

From there, Carolina finished the game on a 39-17 run to leave no doubt. Back-to-back threes by Duane Notice sparked a fire Tennessee had no real shot to put out, and the Gamecocks should feel plenty good about their NCAA Tournament chances with an 82-55 victory.

Some combination of the freshman wall and teams simply figuring Tennessee out has taken place in the month of February. The Vols’ five-of-six streak that put them on the bubble and included wins at Vanderbilt and vs Kentucky & Kansas State featured an offense routinely scoring in the 80’s. But take away the 90-70 win over lowly Missouri last week, and in the month of February the Vols have scored 59, 75, 75, 58, 56, and 55 points. Today the Vols had three assists and 20 turnovers. This drop in production has allowed what looked like an easier portion of the schedule to in fact be more costly.

The Vols drop to 15-14 (7-9) with a welcome trip to LSU next before closing out the regular season against Alabama. After having been generally regarded as the fifth-best team in the SEC for four weeks, it’s getting quite crowded in a potential NIT field for the SEC. Vanderbilt still hunts the big dance, and there are a slew of league foes who will finish with a better overall record. The Vols should still have a better resume in both RPI and KenPom than most of them, but winning next week would certainly help solidify our NIT hopes.

You can always get on the dance floor via Nashville, but for now this team needs to reset itself and see if it can make any late improvements to change its offensive woes. These Vols have surprised us this year, but after this week we’re left to wonder if they’ve peaked. Staying above .500 will be critical for their NIT hopes.