Tennessee needed a solid, uneventful night and that’s exactly what they got on Tuesday against South Carolina. A bit of a bumpy start was smoothed over by an outstanding second half effort as the Volunteers improved to 11-4.
South Carolina jumped out to an 8-2 advantage, capitalizing on another slow start by the Tennessee offense. In a lot of ways, it looked like the Ole Miss start from a week ago — no rhythm — nothing doing.
Freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler changed that with a quick four-point spurt to get the Volunteers going.
It was an ugly, physical first half, as it usually is between these two programs. Both offenses tried to get to the rim early, but it was tough sledding early. Tennessee actually found the bonus with over ten minutes to play, but failed to take advantage of it. The Volunteers shot just 9-18 from the free throw stripe in the first half, allowing South Carolina to hang around.
James Reese did his best to keep the Gamecock in it, scoring ten first half points on 80 percent shooting.
Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James connected on a couple of big three-pointers late to make the scoreboard look a little better, pushing Tennessee out to a 30-24 lead at the break.
The Volunteers strung some baskets together to open the second half. Josiah-Jordan James hit another three, and Santiago Vescovi added another bucket in transition. Finally, the 15 point favorite Tennessee had a little breathing room with 16 minutes left to play.
James Reese kept firing, and kept hitting. He scored his 15th point of the game early in the half, but suddenly the South Carolina defense was letting up. Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chander extended the Vols’ lead out to 43-29, and Tennessee was officially in the driver’s seat.
It was a balanced scoring night for the Volunteers, who got contributions from up and down the roster. It was a night where Vescovi couldn’t find his three-point stroke, but Tennessee was able to do enough damage in the paint in the second half to maintain a ten point lead.
John Fulkerson came alive late in the second half, perhaps responding to some criticism from Rick Barnes over the weekend. It was good to see him get involved again and make a couple of things happen in the post as he continues to work back from his bout with COVID.
Tennessee built up a 56-41 lead with under six minutes to play. For all the talk about Tennessee’s struggles on the offensive end, it’s easy to lose how good this defense is. Once again, KenPom’s third-ranked defensive unit showed up and showed out tonight.
Frank Martin’s Gamecocks couldn’t find an answer in the second half. Tennessee cruised to a 66-46 win.
Fulkerson finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds and a couple of blocks. Vescovi led the scoring for Tennessee, hitting a couple of garbage time three-pointers to get to 14 points on the night. Josiah-Jordan James and Zakai Zeigler each had 11.
Tennessee will take a trip to Rupp Arena on Saturday to face the Kentucky Wildcats. Tip-off for that one is set for 1 p.m. ET.