Tennessee (9-5, 1-1 SEC) outlasted South Carolina (8-6, 0-1 SEC) in a physical matchup in Thompson-Boling Arena, and the Vols came away with a 56-55 victory.
The Gamecocks got off to a slow start on offense, but South Carolina’s physical defense kept Tennessee from jumping out to an early lead.
When the Vols did get open shots, they struggled to connect. With eight minutes left in the half the Vols had made just 3-of-13 field goals, and Tennessee finished with 26% shooting at the end of the first.
“We had a bunch of good looks tonight. We’re not going to tell our guys not to shoot, we’re just going to ask them if they’re good shots,” Tennessee coach, Rick Barnes, said after the game.
Jordan Bowden once again failed to make a positive impact on offense in the game, as he finished the contest just 1-of-17 shooting and a pair of assists. However, John Fulkerson was able to put up a hard-earned nine first-half points for the Vols against the suffocating Gamecock defense.
South Carolina led Tennessee 26-25 at the end of the half, and the Gamecocks came out of the half with more juice on the offensive end of the floor.
Maik Kotsar and Keyshawn Bryant each quickly put up six points, and South Carolina jumped ahead to a 38-31 lead.
Tennessee’s shooters began to heat up with ten minutes left in the game thanks in large part to a combined 15 second-half points from freshmen guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.
Up 56-55 with one-and-a-half seconds left on the clock AJ Lawson drove in for a game-winning layup for the Gamecocks, but Fulkerson shut him down by taking a game-sealing charge. Tennessee lobbed the ball across the court and the clock ran out, leaving the Vols victorious on the court.
“He was coming full steam ahead and he was not looking to pass it, so I just stepped over and took a charge,” Fulkerson said.
With Bowden failing to contribute much, the Vols needed their underclassmen to step up, and the freshmen took on that burden. Among the solid freshmen performers on the court was Drew Pember, who saw a significant number of minutes in crunch time. For freshmen to make an impact they must first gain the trust of their coach, and Barnes seems to trust his younger guys when it matters most.
“He said a couple of times he trusts me on inbounds, so that gives me the confidence to make the right play,” Pember said. “I’m definitely getting a lot more comfortable out there.”
Next up, Tennessee will begin a two-game road trip with a game against Georgia. Tip-off in Athens is set for 7 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Jan. 15.
Edited by Ben Gleason and Maddie Torres
Featured image courtesy of Ben Gleason