Vols are road kill again

Bruce Pearl saw it coming. With his Tennessee basketball team coming off impressive homefloor defeats of LSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the coach worried that the Vols might overlook lowly South Carolina.

Those concerns were well founded. Playing perhaps its worst game of the Pearl era, Tennessee suffered an ugly 81-64 loss Saturday afternoon at the Colonial Center in Columbia.

"It was a classic case of not handling success," Pearl said on his post-game radio show.

The coach warned his players before the game that they were primed for an upset – facing a lightly regarded South Carolina team after an emotional homecourt defeat of Kentucky four days earlier. Sure enough, the Vols were not mentally ready to play, and they were humiliated as a result.

"I've seen it a million times," Pearl said. "To our team's credit, this was the first time in two years where that (lack of focus) was a factor. It happens all the time in sports. It had never happened to one of my teams but it happened tonight."

The Vols (18-9 overall, 6-6 SEC) now stand 0-6 in SEC road games and 1-7 in all road games this season. They are 14-0 on their home floor and 3-2 on neutral courts.

The Gamecocks (13-12 overall, 3-9 SEC) had lost five games in a row. But they looked like world-beaters against a Tennessee team that couldn't hit the basket or defend the basket.

Carolina, which was shooting just 39 percent from the field entering Saturday's game, hit its first five shots. The hosts finished at 53.7 percent (29 of 54), including a sizzling 61.5 percent (16 of 26) after intermission. The Gamecocks were unconscious from beyond the arc, nailing 13 of 28 attempts (46.4 percent).

Senior guard Tre Kelley did most of the damange for South Carolina, scoring 25 points and directing the offense beautifully. The Cocks committed just 8 turnovers, with three of those coming after head coach Dave Odom cleared the bench in the final minutes.

Bryce Sheldon chipped in 16 points, Brandis Raley-Ross 12 and Dominique Archie 11 for Carolina, which had lost four of five SEC home games prior to Saturday.

Tennessee won the backboards 37-28 but shot just 38 percent (21 of 55) from the field and 30 percent (6 of 20) from beyond the arc.

Ramar Smith led the Vols with 15 points. Chris Lofton added 13 but made just 1 of 7 shots from 3-point range. The ankle injury that caused him to miss four games earlier this season seemed to be more bothersome than it was against Kentucky on Tuesday night.

"Chris was in a lot of pain this week," Pearl said. "He wasn't able to get open nearly as well, and he wasn't able to guard nearly as well.... He wasn't able to ever get it going tonight."

JaJuan Smith chipped in 10 points for Tennessee, all in the first half. He suffered a hip bruise midway through the first half and was severely limited thereafter.

Smith opened the game with a 3-pointer and a layup off a steal as the Vols jumped to a 5-2 lead. Carolina tied the score with a 3-pointer, however, and Tennessee would never lead again.

The Gamecocks gradually moved ahead 28-17 but the Vols made a 9-0 run to close to 28-26. A technical foul on freshman Duke Crews seemed to shift the momentum, however, and Carolina made an 8-2 spurt to go up 36-28.

Down 36-31 at halftime, Tennessee closed to 36-33 when Dane Bradshaw scored inside to open the second half, but that was the last hurrah for the Vols. Kelley drained a 3 to open a 16-2 explosion that widened Carolina's lead to 52-35 with 14:42 to play. The gap peaked at 70-45 with 7:37 remaining.

"We got down and, once you get down, you get so disrupted," Pearl said. "You start to rush offensively and nothing looks anything like it's supposed to. It was just pathetic."

Tennessee hosts Alabama (19-7, 6-6) Wednesday at 8. The Tide is coming off a 72-61 defeat of Kentucky on Saturday.

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