The Tennessee Volunteers (16-11, 6-6) entered the matchup against the South Carolina Gamecocks (16-9, 8-4) with just a 12% chance to make the NCAA tournament, so it was clear that the Vols needed a big win on the road.
But the Vols couldn’t get it done as the Gamecocks were able to comeback in the final minute of the game and pull off the win.
Maik Kotsar finished with a team-high 13 points, but it was South Carolina’s defense that told the story on the night. It was able to force Tennessee into too many mistakes that it could not recover from.
John Fulkerson led the way with a career-high 25 points, but it wasn’t enough to pull out the victory.
Tennessee was able to get on the board first thanks to a shooting foul on Fulkerson as he attempted to go up for a shot in the paint. He made both free throws to give the Vols a 2-0 lead in the first minute of the game.
The Vols had a chance to extend the lead by three. Both Jordan Bowden and Santiago Vescovi had opportunities to hit a wide-open 3, but neither could get the job done. Jalyn McCreary then went down the court and laid down a monster slam to tie the game up, 2-2.
But both teams were off to a horrid start shooting-wise, as they combined for a 1-of-10 mark from the floor with 16:30 left in the first half. Tennessee was 0-for-6, while South Carolina was 1-of-4. It wasn’t really a matter of good defense, for the most part. Defense factored in, but it was mostly the missed shots that were the cause of the low shooting percentage.
A great inbounds play to Fulkerson down low broke the tie, but Trae Hannibal immediately made a layup of his own to tie the game right back up at 4-4. It had been at least 2:30 minutes since either team scored a point in any fashion.
Yves Pons came through with a tough bucket down low to break the tie with about 12:55 remaining in the first half. At this point, it wasn’t about missed shots anymore. Both defenses were locking down the opposing offense and neither team was able to get anything going offensively.
That was until Vescovi knocked down the first 3 of the game to extend Tennessee’s lead to 9-4. Couisnard kept it a one-score game with an immediate layup of his own right after. The Gamecocks were able to force a turnover a few players later and a three-point play from Wildens Leveque tied the game back up at 9-9 with 11:26 left in the first half.
Vescovi found Fulkerson right after for a quick layup to give the Vols an 11-9 lead, but Hannibal and the Gamecocks wouldn’t go away. He made a layup of his own and the game was tied back up. Two Bowden free throws broke the tie and gave the Vols a 13-11 lead. It was a matter of what you could do at the charity stripe at this point. The Vols were a perfect 4-of-4, while the Gamecocks were 1-of-5. At the same time, however, the Gamecocks had 4 offensive rebounds to the Vols’ one, so the Gamecocks were OK as long as they continued to get second chances.
Tennessee was finally able to create a bit of space with a 20-14 lead, but Maik Kotsar was able to hit back-to-back buckets in order to make it a 20-18 game. As expected, the post game was dominating the scoreboard, as 24 of the game’s 38 points had come from the paint.
South Carolina continued to fight and eventually tied it up, 24-24 with about 3:15 left in the first half, but Bowden answered right back with a 3 of his own to put the Vols back up, 27-24.
But the Gamecokcs continued to fight. McCreary missed two layups down 27-24, but got the offensive rebound off the second missed free throw and made an easy layup to pull within 27-26. A Bolden jumper put them up, 28-27 with 1:16 left in the first half.
Bowden was able to tie it back up with a free throw, but he couldn’t make the second to help his team re-take the lead. Couisnard showed tremendous effort as he recovered a blocked 3-point attempt and attempted to take the ball to the rim, only to be fouled on his way up. He sunk both free throws to give the Gamecocks a 29-28 lead, but Fulkerson hit a layup as time expired to end the first half at a 30-30 tie.
Right now, it was all about second-chance points and missed free throws for South Carolina. The Gamecocks were dominating the offensive boards with an 8-4 mark and they also had a tremendous advantage in second-chance points (9-1). If they could start hitting 3s (0-for-6) and free throws (8-for-16), then it was clear Tennessee was going to be in trouble.
Both teams were struggling with turnovers thanks to suffocating defense on both ends of the court. It really looked like whichever team could find a semblance of offensive rhythm in the second half would win the game.
First half today: 28 fouls, 20 turnovers, 17-31 from the free throw line, 3-16 from three.— Big T (@ConnerHKnapp) February 15, 2020
These teams produce absolute abominations to the game of basketball. pic.twitter.com/VWIq8fA8BG
A stat correction was made during halftime. What appeared to be a Bowden 3 earlier in the game was eventually ruled as a field goal due to the fact that Bowden’s toe was on the white line as he attempted his shot. So, instead of a 30-30 tie, the Vols were down, 30-29 as the second half began.
It looked like the Vols were finding said rhythm, as they made four of their last five shots to end the first half, but they couldn’t hit their opening shot of the second half. On the other hand, the Gamecocks made their first 3 of the game right after the missed shot to push their lead to 33-29.
South Carolina hit another 3 to push the lead to 36-29, but Fulkerson helped lead an 11-0 run to re-claim the lead, 40-36, with 15:20 to go in the game.
But the Gamecocks ended the run with five quick points of their own. Another Bolden 3 tied the game up at 41, but they couldn’t re-take the lead despite back-to-back offensive rebounds. That allowed Josiah Jordan-James to hit a 3 on the other end of the court, which gave the Vols a 44-41 lead.
A.J. Lawson finally made his name heard as sunk a jumper from the elbow to tie the game up at 44, but Fulkerson was fouled on the opposite end and made both free throws to put the Vols back up, 46-44.
Hannibal made a jumper of his own to tie the game back up at 46. South Carolina had a chance to get back in front, but a costly turnover led to a Pons dunk that put the Vols back in front, 48-46 with a little over 9:30 left in the game.
Tennessee continued to pile it on and eventually built it’s biggest lead of the game. Another Pons dunk - this time off a sweet assist from Vescovi - had the Vols up, 54-47.
They were beginning to find that offensive rhythm with a little under 7:30 left in the game. If they could keep the turnovers down and continue to penetrate, then another SEC win was very likely.
A key moment arrived as Vescovi recorded his fourth foul with about 6:45 left in the game. His play, especially his ability to find open shooters, was a big reason why the Vols were currently in the lead. Because of the foul, he was forced to sit on the bench, leaving Tennessee without one of its best offensive weapons.
Tennessee was not letting the Gamecocks back in the game. South Carolina had a primo chance to tie the game, but outstanding hustle by James allowed him to block the game-tying shot and he was able to keep the block in bounds. Pons muscled his way into the paint on the opposite end and made a layup to put Tennessee up by two scores, 56-52.
The Vols were able to push their lead to six, but a Gamecock bucket cut the lead to four with under three minutes left in the game. Tennessee had a chance to go back up by six, but couldn’t convert, leaving South Carolina with a chance to make it a one-score game.
But they couldn’t get it done and to make matters worse, Kotsar notched his fourth foul of the game as he illegal bumped Pons. It didn’t matter, however, as Pons missed the first free throw of a 1-and-1 situation.
Hannibal was then fouled on his way to the basket and made both free throws to make it a one score game at 58-56 with 2:16 to go.
Matters became worse for the Vols as Lawson drilled a 3 to put the Gamecocks up, 59-58 with a little over 1:30 to go, but Vescovi was able to make a helluva play after a helluva mistake that led to a Fulkerson bucket. Vescovi threw the ball away as he drove along the baseline, but had the presence of mind to go back and get the ball from the defender who stole it. He then dished it to Fulkerson who made the layup and put the Vols up, 60-59, with 1:02 left in the game.
South Carolina had one timeout left and was in the double bonus, while the Vols had two timeouts left and was in the bonus.
But Fulkerson immediately stole the ball on the play after the Gamecocks’ timeout. It was a perfectly-timed steal that gave the Vols the ball back. Now, Tennessee had a chance to go up by at least two points on the following possession.
Tennessee couldn’t get any points, however, as Vescovi turned it over. Kotsar recovered and was fouled as he drove down the court. He made both free throws to put South Carolina up, 61-60 with :21 seconds left.
It looked like Fulkerson was going to have a shot at making the game-winning bucket, but he was too aggressive as he drove toward the rim and drew an offensive foul. The Vols were subsequently forced to foul Kotsar on the ensuing inbounds play.
He made both free throws, giving the Gamecocks a 63-60 lead with :7.3 seconds left. South Carolina wisely fouled on Tennessee’s next possession, leaving the Vols with a tough decision to make at the line.
James made the first free throw. The Vols took their last timeout and decided to miss the following free throw and crash the boards. It worked as James was able to get his own rebound, but missed a jumper to tie the game.
The Vols would go on to lose, 63-61 as time expired.
The Vols will host the Vanderbilt Commodores at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday, February 18. Tipoff is set for 6:30 PM EST.