After allowing the visiting Gamecocks to shoot 51.7 percent from the field and 50 percent (6 of 12) from 3 in the first half, the fourth-ranked Vols went to intermission leading just 38-37. A tenacious defense limited Carolina to six points in the first 11 minutes of the second half, however, and the Vols' depth fueled a subsequent 21-0 explosion that … uh, busted the game wide open.
"We got off to a slow start," senior guard JaJuan Smith said. "You've got to take your hat off to South Carolina for not giving up on their season, but we just wore ‘em down the second half, and that's where our depth came in."
Tennessee, which already clinched the SEC regular-season title, concludes regular-season play with a 28-3 overall record and a 14-2 mark in league play. The Gamecocks finish 13-17 and 5-11.
The Vol defense – abysmal in the first half – was awesome in the second half. It limited the Gamecocks to 20 percent shooting (7 of 35) from the field, 18.2 percent (2 of 11) from 3-point range and just 19 second-half points. And, because the visitors were misfiring so regularly, Tennessee outrebounded Carolina 31-18 after intermission to finish with a 49-34 backboard bulge.
Head coach Bruce Pearl described Tennessee's second-half defensive effort as "terrific," adding that it enabled the Vols to "separate ourselves."
Smith did a magnificent job on Devan Downey, limiting the Carolina point guard to 2 points – down from 24 in the earlier meeting at Columbia. Smith produced 17 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals before fouling out with 3:30 remaining, getting a standing ovation from the 21,734 in attendance.
Pearl called Smith "one of the better defensive guards in the country," and praised his stellar work on Downey. Smith brushed off the compliment by noting that "we put a great team effort on him.… That was my man but I don't want to take full credit. I know a few times he went by me and a (Vol) big man was coming (to help out) and made him take difficult shots."
Lofton went out in style, as well, scoring 28 points and draining 6 of 10 shots from 3-point range. The last one swished with 3:11 remaining, moving him past Dale Ellis into fifth place on Tennessee's all-time scoring list. Lofton was removed from the floor for good at this point, bringing the crowd to its feet a second time.
"Coach told me to go in and try to score," Lofton recalled, grinning sheepishly as he recapped his late-game return to the lineup. "I just went in, tried to score and got the 3."
Typically modest, the senior All-American shrugged off the accomplishment by noting: "It's great, but it's because of my teammates. They were setting the screens and getting me the ball. It's all because of them."
Howell, clearly pressing in his final home appearance, went 0 of 5 from the floor but still got a hearty ovation when he was summoned to the sidelines with 2:02 to play.
Lofton, Smith and Howell were introduced, along with their parents, in an emotionally-charged pre-game ceremony. Video highlights of each player's career were shown, and there were a lot of misty eyes throughout the arena.
"It was emotional for all of us," Howell said. "We were sitting back watching the show on the big screen. My mom was crying. So were Chris's mom and JaJuan's mom.
"It was neat to see the things we've accomplished here, and I'm just thankful to be able to play my career with JaJuan and Chris."
TYLER GETS TO ‘WATCH'
Because Tyler Smith's watch was wrong, he had to watch the first seven minutes of Sunday's home finale.
The 6-7 forward forgot to "spring forward" with his clocks and watches last night in accordance with the time change from EST to EDT. Because he arrived late for the Sunday's pre-game shoot-around, he saw his streak of 30 consecutive starts end. He didn't take the court until the 12:41 mark of the first half.
Smith was not the only Vol whose timing was off today, however. As Pearl smugly put it: "Four guys had Daylight Savings Time issues."