Going back to 1994, Tennessee stands 5-13 in SEC Tourney play. Friday's loss marks the eighth times during those 13 years UT lost its tourney opener. The Vols lost their second tourney test the other five years.
This time was supposed to be different. Tennessee came in with a 21-6 record and an SEC East title. That, coupled with the first-round bye and the tourney being played in Nashville, seemed to give the Vols a great opportunity to advance to Sunday's finals.
That wasn't the case, though. South Carolina, which lost to Tennessee twice during the regular season, led by as many as 17 points and simply out-hustled the Vols for most of the game.
"South Carolina really outplayed us," Vol coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "I thought their energy level was higher than ours."
Much as Kentucky's Rajon Rondo did in Tennessee's home finale, Carolina's Tre' Kelley riddled the Vols with slashing drives to the bucket. He finished with 25 points and 8 assists for the Gamecocks, now 17-14.
"Kelley is one of the top five most underrated players in our league," Pearl said. "He was able to control the ball and take us off the dribble. We just couldn't turn them over enough to make the difference."
"We got off to a pretty good start but when Balkman came in, I thought he brought an energy level," Pearl said. "He got a couple of offensive rebound baskets that really ignited South Carolina. Once South Carolina starts to play in the lead – with their spread offense, their good ball-handlers and their running the shot-clock down – it obviously disrupted us and put a lot of pressure on our offense."
C.J. Watson was just about the only Vol who produced, scoring 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Leading scorer Chris Lofton finished with 12 points but missed nine of his first 10 shots before hitting three of his last four. Dane Bradshaw chipped in 10 points. Andre Patterson scored just 2 points but contributed 9 rebounds.
Tennessee's last lead was 25-24. Carolina closed the first half with a 9-2 spurt that produced a 33-27 intermission lead. The Gamecocks hit 7 of their first 10 second-half shots to build the lead to 13 (54-41) and eventually widened the gap to 17 (61-44) on a follow dunk by Brandon Wallace with 5:18 to play.
Tennessee never got back in the game, although the Vols did whittle the deficit to six points (77-71) on a Lofton 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.
Friday's loss could hurt UT's seeding for the NCAA Tournament. The seedings will be announced on Sunday. The Vols were expected to be a No. 3 seed but could drop to a 4 or even a 5 after yet another hasty exit from the SEC Tournament.