It took a season-high 11 blocks, some key free throw shooting, and an insanely well-timed offensive foul forced by John Fulkerson, but the Vols were able to get the job done and get their second straight SEC win of the season.
The big man also led the team with 15 points and 10 rebounds on 5-of-7 shooting, while Maik Kotsar led the Gamecocks with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor.
Fulkerson got things off to a great start by sinking the first shot of the game to give the Vols a quick 2-0 lead. Santiago Vescovi picked up where he left off against Missouri a few plays later by draining a 3 - it was also his first shot - to push Tennessee’s lead to 5-0. Fulkerson slammed it home to make it a 7-0 lead on the next possession, but Kotsar made South Carolina’s first bucket of the game to end the run and cut Tennessee’s lead to 7-2 soon after.
The Gamecocks already had four turnovers in the first 2:30 of the game, but an inefficient Tennessee offense and back-to-back 3s from Jermaine Couisnard allowed them to create an 8-0 run and take the lead, 8-7 with 15:19 left in the first half. The Vols started the game 3-of-3 from the floor, but were just 0-of-5 since.
But two Fulkerson free throws put the Vols back in the lead, 9-8, soon after the second Cousinard trey, and a free throw from Yves Pons pushed Tennessee’s lead to 10-8. Kotsar tied it up with a layup, but missed the extra free throw - and the chance to re-take the lead - on the and-1 opportunity. Jalyn McCreary bailed him out a few possessions later with a layup, however, to break the tie and give the Gamecocks a 12-10 lead with 11:28 left in the first half.
South Carolina was able to get out to another 8-0 run, but Jordan Bowden was able to drain his first shot of the game - a three from the top of the key - to break the run and pull the Vols within three points, 16-13, with 7:41 left in the first half.
Bowden was also responsible for an insane block on Keyshawn Bryant as he went for an easy dunk off a Tennessee turnover. If it doesn’t make SC’s Top-10 plays, it’ll be a travesty.
Bowden’s play must have had some kind of effect on the team, because the Vols were able to pull together and build a 9-0 run over the next 2:40 and take back the lead, 19-16.
The lead didn’t last long thanks to South Carolina point guard A.J. Lawson. The talented guard stripped the ball from Bowden and was able to force a foul/free throws as he went up for the layup in transition. Lawson sunk both attempts from the charity stripe to give the Gamecocks a 22-21 lead with 3:53 left in the first half.
Later on, Bowden missed an attempt to put the Vols back in front by missing 1-of-2 shots from the charity stripe and the Gamecocks made him pay by making a quick bucket on the other end to go back, 24-22. Kotsar followed up the next possession with a layup on his own, but Fulkerson was given an and-1 opportunity on the other end. He made the free throw and the Vols were able to force a crucial offensive foul immediately after to re-gain possession of the ball and possibly play for the final shot of the first half.
Tennessee couldn’t take advantage of the moment and went into the locker room down 26-25. Both defenses certainly had a say in the low-scoring half, but both offenses were full of mistakes and inefficient play, as well. South Carolina shot just 9-of-26 (34.6%) from the floor, but the Vols were even worse at 7-of-27 (25.9%).
The Vols would also need to improve upon their 8-of-12 mark from the free throw line, especially if this was going to go down as a one-possession game.
Josiah Jordan-James made a quick bucket to put the Vols up 27-26 early on, but South Carolina roared right back with two straight buckets to go back up, 30-27.
Tennessee would go on to struggle mightily on offense and a lot of it was due to the South Carolina defense. The Gamecock offense, on the other hand, was taking the death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach on offense. A 7-0 run over the course of the next 6:30 gave the Cocks a 39-31 lead - their largest of the game at the moment - with 13:40 left in the game.
But all of a sudden, Tennessee’s offense came to life and the Vols were able to mount a 7-0 run to bring the score to one point at 39-38. Vescovi led the way with five of the team’s seven points, including his second 3 of the game.
South Carolina made a couple of free throws to push the lead to 41-38 after a quick timeout, the Vols continued to fight. They did miss another chance to take the lead when Vescovi made just 1-of-2 free throws, but it wasn’t as bad as South Carolina’s 4:40 scoring drought with 9:58 left in the game.
Bowden had another chance to put Tennessee back in front at the charity stripe, and this time he sunk both free throws. Tennessee now led, 43-41, and immediately forced a turnover on the next possession, but Bowden couldn’t take advantage of an open 3.
The Vols were able to maintain a four-point lead until James drained a 3 from the corner to give the Vols their biggest lead of the game, 51-44, with 7:20 to go.
But of course, the Tennessee offense stalled out while South Carolina continued to battle back, making it a 52-50 game with under 5:00 left. Couisnard had a chance to tie it up with two free throws at one point, but missed both attempts. Things became even worse a few possessions later when Lawson missed a potential game-tying dunk.
Fulkerson showed him how to get it done as he slammed one home to make it a 54-50 game, but Couisnard kept it a one-score affair with a layup on the next possession. Frank Martin called a timeout little later to gather the troops with 1:48 left in the game.
A huge offensive rebound from Pons led to a bad reach-in foul on Keyshawn Bryant. He fouled Vescovi, who made both of his attempts to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-52 with 1:20 remaining. As clutch as that was, Lawson was able to strip the ball from him a few plays later, which led to two made free throws and cut the Vols’ lead to 56-55 with :35 seconds left in the game.
Bowden launched an ill-advised, contested 3 with time still on the play clock and badly missed, but Fulkerson made a diving attempt for the ball, which caused a collision that carried him and a Gamecock out of bounds. The refs had to go to the monitors in order to determine who had possession, and it was decided that Tennessee would obtain possession of the ball with :10.4 seconds left in the game and :4 seconds left on the game clock.
An extremely sloppy inbounds play wiped out any chance for the Vols to pad their lead and it also gave the Gamecocks an excellent chance at a quick transition bucket to win the game. But Martin refused to call a timeout and as Lawson ran down the court, he collided into Fulkerson, who was in the perfect place at the perfect time to draw the offensive foul.
That’s all it would take as the Vols would re-gain possession of the ball and close out the game with a 56-55 win.
The Vols will travel to Athens, Georgia to take on the Bulldogs for their next game. Tipoff is currently scheduled for Wednesday, January 15 at 7PM EST.