Tennessee not only a survived a dentist's surgery without any numbing effect. The Vols seemed to enjoy the pain.
Rick Barnes' team used an explosive second half in which Kevin Punter scored 27 points to end with a career-high 36 and the team shot 9-of-12 from 3-point range to bury No. 24 South Carolina, 78-69, for Barnes' first win over a top 25 team since taking over in Knoxville. It came against a familiar foe in Gamecocks coach Frank Martin, whose gritty defensive teams Barnes has faced six times in his tenure as a head coach.
"Everybody knows it's never going to be easy," Barnes said. "It's like going to the darn dentist with no Novocaine. That's what it's like when you go against his team."
But it was the kind of game Tennessee (10-9, 3-4) relished after a Wednesday beating at the hands of Vanderbilt. Barnes said he couldn't even get past the first eight minutes of the loss tot he Commodores during a film session with his team, and Tennessee rectified that double-digit blowout with a nice win of its own Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 13,928.
The Vols turned in their best defensive effort of the season, suffocating South Carolina and throwing off Sindarius Thornwell, who came in averaging 12 points a game. Thornwell finished with two points on 1-of-8 shooting and had five turnovers in his team's defeat. The Gamecocks were paced by Michael Carrera's 22 points.
"That's the best 40 minutes of defense we've played all year," Barnes said. "Really, the thing as a staff we were most pleased with would be the fact that we responded mentally after the way we played the other night (against Vanderbilt). I thought we came out with the focus that we had to have."
The offense also joined the party, scoring the most points on South Carolina of any team this year with a furious second half rally that put the game out of reach. The Vols shot 50 percent from the floor after the break and connected on 75 percent of their 3-pointers in the win with Kevin Punter leading the way.
"This team is a really great shooting team," guard Devon Baulkman said. "It didn't surprise me. If everybody gets hot, it's going to be a long night for the other team. If we get good looks, we need to take those shots when we can."
The first half was akin to a football defensive slugfest that was mostly sloppy and without rhythm. Tennessee took a 29-28 lead into halftime despite not connecting on a field goal in the last 8:12 of the half.
“I tried to be real positive at halftime, but I knew that we were lucky we were even in the game," Framl Martin said of his team. "I’ll tell you what, it's awesome for Rick Barnes to be in our conference. I think it’s awesome to see him animated and excited, and his kids playing so hard. It’s great to watch. It’s great to watch, but I knew at halftime we were in trouble."
Despite being outscored 40-14 in the paint, Tennessee's fireworks from 3-point range and stingy second-half defense helped the Vols ride the upset wave. Robert Hubbs finished with 12 points and Detrick Mostella ended the game with 10, eight of which came in the second half salvo.
“I’ve said all along, I really like this team. We’re hard on them. We expect a lot. We’ve never used that term ‘rebuilding.’ We’ve never said anything about that," Barnes said.
"I told them the other day, ‘You don’t play transition defense, you give up easy baskets, you don’t listen to the scouting report.’ We weren’t focused. I’ve talked a lot about that. Prior to the Vanderbilt game was probably the most I’ve gotten on guys where I felt like they just weren’t on the edge. I said to them, ‘ You can lose games the day before the game. I don’t know how we can ever think that we can just show up and play.’ We’ve been very honest with them. We don’t have a lot of room for error. One thing that can be non-negotiable is effort. I think it’s a real compliment to them, and maybe it’s a thing of learning to play the game."