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Tennessee crushes South Carolina on the road, 81-57

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

The smallest player on the court was the biggest story of the game, again.

Zakai Zeigler scored his first points of today’s game with a made 3 at the 14:51-mark of the second half, which gave Tennessee a six-point lead, 43-37. On the next possession, he made another 3, and the Vols never looked back.

Zeigler scored a career-high-tying 18 points against the Gamecocks, all in the final 20 minutes, on 4-5 shooting from deep and 6-13 shooting overall. He also added three steals in 27 minutes.

The first half was a bit touch-and-go: Tennessee bombed away from the game’s outset, with the Vols’ first four made baskets coming from behind the 3-point line. Some early UT turnovers and South Carolina’s onus on getting shots at the basket kept the Gamecocks within striking distance much of the first 20 minutes. The Vols also went through one of their brutal, at-least-once-per-game offensive stretches — Tennessee didn’t score a point for around four minutes in the first half, from a James 3 at the 12:58-mark through two made three throws from Uros Plavsic at the 8:36 mark.

South Carolina took the lead with a Jermaine Couisnard layup with six-ish minutes left in the first half, but the Vols closed the period on a 9-5 run that gave the Vols a 33-29 lead.

James was the only Tennessee scorer in double figures in the first half as he poured in 15 points on 6-9 shooting. He was, as is typical, impactful all over the court and added two key blocks and three rebounds, too.

The Vols just sped away from South Carolina in the second half, thanks to Zeigler’s career-high-tying scoring outburst and the team’s 8-15 effort from behind the 3-point line. In total, the Vols outscored the Gamecocks 48-28 in the second half. Santiago Vescovi, who sat for awhile in the first half once he picked up his second foul, also came alive in the final 20 minutes. He scored 10 of his 13 points after halftime.

This was Zeigler’s fourth-straight game scoring in double figures and the sixth time he’s done so in the last eight games.

Kennedy Chandler recorded a double-double for the Vols today with 11 points, 10 assists and just one turnover. He also worked in three steals.

Something worth noting: Olivier Nkamhoua left the game with a “leg injury,” and was pretty quickly ruled out for the rest of the game. It was an awkward landing — I think he jumped up and sorta landed on another player’s foot — that elicited a demonstrative response from Nkamhoua as he tried to take stock of the damage. I don’t think he was experiencing intense pain, more surprise, maybe, but it’s something to keep an eye on. He’d been productive prior, with seven points, five rebounds and a couple impressive blocks on defense.

It was nice to end up running away with this one, especially since it was on the road and an early game. It’s easy to come out flat in those instances.

The Vols travel to Starkville to play Mississippi State next Wednesday at 9 PM (groan).