On Tuesday evening, the fifth ranked Tennessee Volunteers put their undefeated home record on the line against the surging South Carolina Gamecocks, who despite being 17-3 and beating a Top 10 Kentucky team by 17 points, found itself outside of the Top 25. This game looked like a Tennessee game of old — a total “defensive-minded” rock fight. You wanted tempo? Too bad. You wanted exciting offense? Too bad. You wanted to watch a good basketball game? Too. Damn. Bad. In terms of play styles, South Carolina got exactly what they wanted — they controlled the tempo and made Tennessee play offense in the half court. As one could have guessed from the above, Tennessee fell to South Carolina 63-59 for their first home loss of the season. They now sit at 5-2 in conference play and 15-5 overall. Tennessee final shooting splits tonight were 36.2/23.8/60.
Perhaps it was overlooking South Carolina and focusing on Kentucky this Saturday. Perhaps it was coming out flat. Or perhaps it was South Carolina’s defense. Whatever it was, Tennessee looked lost.
They opened up the game with a wide open missed layup from Jonas Aidoo on the left block, and it set the tone for the entire night. Tennessee’s big man struggled mightily, but especially in the first 20, picking up two fouls, missing two layups, and only recording one rebound. But it wasn’t just Aidoo - JP Estrella managed to miss a dunk, Tobe Awaka missed a couple of layups, and Tennessee as a team shot 36 percent from the field, 18 percent from three-point range, and did not attempt a single free throw in the first half. Yet somehow, somehow, the Vols only trailed 30-26 at halftime.
The second half, while certainly better than the first, was not without it’s challenges. Santiago Vescovi scored five of his 10 total points in the first 90 seconds to tie the game, and when it looked like Tennessee had finally found it’s groove, they preceded to commit four fouls over a span of 31 seconds on their next two defensive possessions to stall whatever momentum they had built.
Tennessee would go on multiple four-plus minute scoring droughts in the second half, but found themselves only down six with four minutes left to play. Enter Dalton Knecht. The standout transfer from Northern Colorado went nuclear in the final two and a half minutes, doing his damndest to get Tennessee the victory. Ultimately though, despite scoring 31 points, including 13 in the final three minutes, his Herculean effort came up just short.
For South Carolina, they were led by clutch shooting performances from guards Ta’Lon Cooper and Myles Stute, who combined to shoot 64 percent from the field and a staggering 87 percent from three point rage. For Stute, it was his first game since January 16 as he was recovering from a shoulder injury.
Fifth-year senior guard Josiah Jordan-James continues to struggle and has appeared to have lost all confidence on the offensive end. Since the start of conference play, he’s averaging three (3?!) points per game on 23 percent shooting from the field. That’s not only bad, it’s embarrassing. It’s easy to overlook his offensive performances when Dalton Knecht is putting up 30 or more on 50 percent shooting, but for a fifth-year senior to be such a net-negative on the offensive end could prove to be insurmountable come March. As of right now, he’s not earning his starting minutes, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Rick Barnes pulls him from the starting lineup to give Jahmai Mashack more playing time.
For Zakai Zeigler, he had his worst performance of conference play, shooting 0/6 from the field, and 2/4 from the free throw line. He also added two turnovers, just for good measure. If there’s one constant aside from Dalton Knecht scoring 30, it’s that Tennessee’s offense runs much better when Zeigler’s turnover numbers are down, and his assist totals are up. Not the case this evening.
With this home loss to South Carolina, Tennessee will look to bounce back against 10 Kentucky in a hostile environment at Rupp Arena. Tip off is at 8:30pm ET on ESPN.
If you couldn’t catch tonight’s game, congratulations, you lucked out. If you’re a sicko and want to check out the box score, you can find it here.