Tyndall’s Vols overcame some slipshod foul shooting in the final minutes to post their third consecutive SEC road victory Tuesday night in Columbia, holding off South Carolina 66-62. Tennessee now stands 12-5 overall and 4-1 in SEC play. The Gamecocks slip to 10-7 and 1-4.
The Big Orange appeared headed for a lopsided win after expanding a 31-26 intermission lead to 51-35 nine minutes into the second half. Senior point guard Josh Richardson went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 10:38 mark, however, and the Vols' composure seemed to go with him.
Tennessee lost the momentum during Richardson’s absence and never regained it, even though he returned to action with 6:03 left and the Vols up 58-45. Justin McKie hit a four-footer and a 3-pointer from the left corner to ignite a 17-5 Gamecock rally that trimmed a 59-45 deficit to 64-62 with 32.4 seconds left.
Richardson finally stopped the bleeding by sinking one of two foul shots with 31 seconds left but South Carolina, down 65-62, had a chance to tie with a 3-point basket. McKie missed a trey from the right wing at this point and Derek Reese rebounded. Fouled with 13.8 seconds left, he made the second of two shots to pad the lead to four points and seal the deal.
Speaking on the post-game show, Tyndall was understandably relieved to slip out of Colonial Life Arena with a W.
“We were fortunate tonight,” he said. “We got the early lead, then they made their run. We literally made one more play than they did to get out of the gym alive.”
Richardson hit 5 of 6 shots, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, and led the Vols with 13 points. In the process he became the 47th Vol to post 1,000 career points.
“I don’t think it’s set in completely,” he said of the milestone. “I’m glad we came in here and got the win. I don’t think I would’ve been too happy if I would’ve hit a thousand points in a loss.”
The tide of Tuesday’s game clearly turned when Richardson – the Vols’ best scorer, defender and ball-handler – went to the bench with his fourth foul.
“Josh is the guy that makes us go, as everybody knows,” Tyndall said. “We took the nice lead, then he picks up the fourth foul, and every possession after that offensively felt like a fist fight. You’re coaching every dribble, and nothing came easy.”
Certainly, free throws didn’t come easy. After making 18 of 20 foul shots in Saturday’s win at Missouri, the Vols’ free-throw shooting on this night very nearly cost them the game.
Moore missed the back end of a one-and-one with 5:32 left, then Punter missed the front end of a one-and-one with 2:02 left. Moore missed both ends of a two-shot foul with 44 seconds left, and Michael Carrera’s tip-in trimmed the gap to 64-62 with 32.4 seconds left. Richardson and Reese then hit one of two free throws each. All told, the Vols made just 3 of 9 foul shots down the stretch.
Conversely, Tennessee shot brilliantly from the field – hitting 57.5 percent (23 of 40) overall, including 55.6 percent (10 of 18) from 3-point range. The Vols came up short in the other areas, however. They made just 58.8 percent (10 of 17) from the foul line, lost the turnover battle 18-10 and gave up 17 offensive rebounds en route to losing the backboard battle 34-28.
Richardson committed eight of Tennessee’s 18 turnovers but Tyndall wasn’t upset.
“If you played against the pressure he played against tonight – where they’re sitting on top of every pass and you can’t hardly get the ball entered to the wing – eight turnovers is going to happen to a lot of people in this building," the coach said. "I’ve said this all year and I mean it: He’s the most important player to any one team in our league.”
Picked 13th out of 14 SEC teams in the preseason media poll, Tennessee now ranks second in the league at 4-1. If that’s surprising, the 3-0 SEC road record is utterly shocking.
“I think we’ve showed a lot of maturity in these games,” Richardson said, “especially the ones we had to grind out at the end.”
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Texas A&M at 1 o’clock.