Coming off consecutive road losses by margins of one point, two points and three points, Vol head coach Bruce Pearl termed the game "a gut check." Tennessee passed it … but just barely.
"I thought this team rallied around Chris," Pearl said. "Look at all the guys that had to step up and make plays. Given what we've gone through with some close losses – and all of a sudden not having your All-American in the game – that was a game a lot of teams would've folded and would've lost."
JaJuan Smith stepped up with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Freshman Wayne Chism stepped up with a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench. Freshman Ramar Smith stepped up with 10 points and 8 rebounds. Dane Bradshaw stepped up with 7 assists. Jordan Howell, who hadn't played in more than a month, stepped up with 16 turnover-free minutes.
After producing more fouls (2) than points (0) in the first half, Lofton scored two baskets in the first 74 seconds of the second half. Thirty-five seconds later, however, he turned his ankle and was carried off the floor with 18:11 to play.
To their credit, the Vols didn't panic. In fact, they outscored the Gamecocks 9-4, stretching their lead from 10 points (37-27) to 15 (46-31) with 13:30 to play.
Nothing has been easy for Tennessee lately, however, and this game wouldn't be either. Leading just 50-47 heading into the final five minutes, the Vols got a huge 3-pointer from reserve guard Josh Tabb. A Chism dunk, then a basket and two free throws by JaJuan Smith padded the lead to 59-52 with 53.8 seconds left.
A 3-pointer by Evaldas Baniuilis narrowed the gap to 59-55 with 45 seconds left but Ramar Smith hit two free throws and Howell one. Dwayne Day nailed a 3 for Carolina but Ramar Smith hit two more free throws with 20.2 seconds left, giving the Vols a 64-58 lead. Gamecock guard Tre Kelley drained a 3 with 4.3 seconds left to secure the final margin.
Tennessee inbounded the ball to JaJuan Smith, who missed a hot-dog dunk in the final second. Pearl was not amused.
"I'm very disappointed in that last play," he said. "I'm not going to be a party to that kind of circus." Otherwise, the coach noted that Smith played "a terrific basketball game."
Pearl saluted Tabb's clutch trey in the closing minutes as "a great 3-ball" and characterized Howell's return to action as "very significant." The coach was elated by Chism's double-double, calling the 6-9 freshman "special." Pearl praised Ramar Smith for making "some big-time pressure free throws" and noted that Bradshaw "made all the little glue plays."
The win improves Tennessee's record to 14-5 overall and 2-2 in league play. The loss drops South Carolina to 10-7 and 0-4.
Kelley led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 7 assists. Brandon Wallace chipped in 9 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.
Tennessee shot just 40.7 percent from the floor, including an icy 33.3 percent in the second half. The Vols made just 23.5 percent from 3-point range, including a frigid 12.5 percent (1 of 8) after intermission. They won the backboard battle 42-30, however.
Ultimately, it was a very ugly win … but a win nonetheless.
Pearl reiterated that every win in SEC play is "precious," then added: "I just don't want them to be precious AND few."