Losing for the 10th time in 13 games, the Vols suffered a 60-49 home-floor setback Saturday afternoon to a South Carolina team that was 1-7 in conference road games coming in. The loss was Tennessee’s seventh in nine home games against league foes this year.
“It’s unusual,” head coach Donnie Tyndall mused, “because I don’t know if I’d lost seven home games in the last five years.”
In hopes of breaking the home-floor jinx Tennessee players wore their orange road uniforms. The ploy failed, though, as the Vols gave yet another poor performance before their home fans. A few of them began heading for the exits when Carolina’s lead swelled to 42-24 six minutes into the second half.
Making Tennessee’s home-floor futility even more noteworthy is the fact this same Vol squad went 5-4 in SEC road games. It’s true that Tennessee faced better competition at home but three teams the Big Orange beat on the road – Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina – bested the Vols in Knoxville rematches. That’s more than puzzling. That’s downright confounding.
“Three of those losses we went on the road and beat ‘em, then they came back here and beat us,” senior captain Josh Richardson conceded. “I don’t know if we think we’re better than a team after we beat ‘em or we just relax at home. I don’t know what it is but three of those losses were teams that we should’ve beat.”
Sophomore Robert Hubbs is equally mystified by Tennessee’s apparent home-floor disadvantage.
“I don’t know what it is but we have to fix it, especially next year,” he said. “We have to sit down and transfer how we play on the road to home, combine the two and just be better.”
You didn’t need a Vanderbilt diagnostician to pinpoint the cause of Saturday’s loss. The Vols couldn’t make baskets and couldn’t stop South Carolina from making baskets. Tennessee shot a paltry 35.6 percent from the field. Conversely, the Gamecocks drained 51.2 percent, including 61.9 percent (13 of 21) en route to a 36-21 halftime lead.
“We just weren’t guarding the dribble,” Richardson said. “We were getting driven (backwards) and they were getting kick-out shots.”
Hubbs and Richardson nailed 3-pointers in helping Tennessee race to a 10-5 lead in the opening minutes. South Carolina switched from man-to-man to a zone defense at this point, however, and the Gamecocks promptly went on a 19-4 run to go up 24-14. A 7-0 Tennessee spurt cut the lead to 24-21 but Carolina scored the final 12 points of the half to take a 36-21 lead to the break.
“We drove it against their man to man but they went zone pretty early in the game,” Tyndall noted. “It was a similar story (in home losses) to Alabama and Texas A&M: Against the zone we just did not drive the basketball enough. Twenty-six of our 45 attempts were behind the 3-point line, and that’s just way too high of a percentage.”
South Carolina built its biggest lead at 18 points (42-24) with 14:18 to play. Two 3-pointers by Richardson and one each by Hubbs and Devon Baulkman helped trim the deficit to eight points (50-42) with 4:55 remaining but the Vols would get no closer.
Richardson and Hubbs scored 14 points each for the Vols, who conclude regular-season play with a 15-15 overall record and a 7-11 SEC mark. Michael Carrera scored 14 and Duane Notice 12 to pace the Gamecocks, now 15-15 and 6-12.
Touched by the standing ovation he received during pre-game introductions, Richardson reflected on his final regular-season appearance at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I’m thankful to be able to play here,” he said. “To all of the fans who are still coming out to the games: I appreciate them. I definitely enjoyed my time here…. I know I definitely won’t forget it.”
Conversely, he hopes to forget the outcome of his final home game rather quickly.
“It just sucks to leave on a loss,” he said, searching vainly for words before adding: “It just sucks.”