Gamecocks fall to Vols in SEC East Title Bout

It was billed as a heavyweight fight for the SEC Eastern Division crown. And by game's end South Carolina felt like it had been a hard battle they just couldn't win as USC fell to Tennessee 86-70 at the Colonial Life Arena. Keep reading for more details.

If you wanted a simplistic way to describe the game between South Carolina and Tennessee on Thursday night, the best metaphor might have been ‘mirror image.'

When the Gamecocks visited Thompson-Boling arena in January they got off to a slow start in the first half and made a ferocious rally in the second, but ended up with an 82-79 loss. In the rematch between the two SEC Eastern Division leaders, the image was reversed as Carolina got off to a strong start but couldn't stick with the Volunteers down the stretch as they dropped their first conference home game of the season 86-70.

"Our kids have battled all year long and played with tremendous pride," USC coach Darrin Horn said of his team. "Tonight was a night that we were not good defensively and didn't rebound the ball like we needed to and it carried over to our offensive end."

The Gamecocks (20-8, 9-6 SEC) used a hot start by senior guard Zam Fredrick to keep pace in the early goings of the game as the two teams traded baskets. Fredrick, who finished tied for the team lead with 16 points, hit three straight 3-pointers within the first four minutes of play as USC led 13-9 early in the first half.

A Mike Holmes basket with just over four and half minutes left in the first half put Carolina up 29-27. Little did the team know it would be their last lead of the night.

Tennessee (19-10, 10-5 SEC) regained the lead and pushed it out to seven before USC trimmed the advantage to 44-40 at halftime.

"We knew it was going to be very difficult to be patient against them because they run a high risk-reward defense. And if you're patient, even here, it plays into their hands, and so we were aggressive attacking. Fortunately we were also able to score," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "That was as good as we've played all year."

Aside from a Fredrick three-point shot to tie the game at 46-46, the second half belonged to the Vols who shot a blistering 54.7 percent from the field for the game. Many of those shots came in the post where the Gamecock defense could find no answers. Of Tennessee's 86 points, 52 of them came in the paint. The Vols also used their length to control the glass as they doubled up Carolina in rebounding with a 44-22 advantage that led to 17 second chance and 16 fast break points.

Meanwhile, the USC offense could find now answer as they shot just 32.3 percent from the floor in the second half.

"In the second half, offensively how poor we were defensively started coming down to that end and we put up too many one pass shots and did not move the ball like we needed to give ourselves a chance to get the kind of shots we needed," Horn said.

"We've got to be good defensively and we've got to rebound the basketball with all five guys, and those two things did not happen tonight. I thought the tone of the game was set in the first half when both teams were scoring too easily. We just were not where we needed to be defensively."

While the Gamecocks did lose the game and the chance to clinch the SEC Eastern Division crown outright, the team has far exceeded preseason expectations. Despite the loss, USC is assured of a first-round bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament and could still claim a piece of the Eastern Division title if they beat Georgia on Saturday and Tennessee falls to Alabama in their regular season finale.

Though there is still an outside shot at being able to hoist a trophy, Fredrick knows that the back-to-back losses are something the team will have to put behind them if they want be successful in the upcoming postseason.

"It was a disappointing loss but as a player you've got to have a short memory. We've still got a good season going. We go back to work tomorrow and get ready to play on Saturday," Fredrick said. "If we keep holding on to this, it will just get rid of the stuff we did earlier this year. We've still got 20 wins with an opportunity to still do good for the rest of the year. If we still hold on to this, then we're going to short ourselves."

NOTES: -USC finishes the year 16-2 at home with their only losses to a former top 10 Clemson team and the SEC East Champion Tennessee.

-Carolina did have four players in double figures as Mike Holmes and Brandis Raley-Ross had 10 points and Devan Downey and Fredrick each had 16.

-The Gamecocks have four players averaging in double figures for the year, including Downey's 20.1 ppg average.

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