In the wake of Tuesday night's 90-72 homefloor loss to Kentucky, Smith informed Hopson that he needed to be more productive. The heralded freshman responded by scoring a career-best 19 points in the first 32 minutes of Saturday night's SEC East showdown at Thompson-Boling Arena. His final bucket gave the Vols a seemingly safe 67-50 lead with 8:16 to play.
As the game entered the home stretch, however, it was Smith who did the asserting. When South Carolina closed to 75-70 with 2:07 left, he hit a pair of clutch free throws and scored on a nifty drive – capping a streak which saw him score 10 consecutive UT points and pad the lead to 79-70 with 1:27 to go.
"Coach (Bruce Pearl) told me to get my teammates involved and then, when it came to crunch time, try to get the ball in my hands," Smith said. "I felt at that time that we needed a bucket, and I tried to get a bucket for our team."
Despite Smith's late-game heroics, Tennessee nearly blew the game at the free-throw line. After a basket by J.P. Prince gave the Vols an 81-73 lead, Cameron Tatum missed the front of back-to-back 1-and-1s and Bobby Maze made just the back end of a two-shot foul. The misfires enabled Carolina to pull within 82-79 with 6.1 seconds left and Mike Holmes at the foul line looking to complete a three-point play.
Holmes missed the free throw but Carolina could've tied the score by securing the ensuing loose ball and nailing a 3. Hopson averted this scenario, however, by outhustling a couple of Gamecocks for the ball and dribbling away the game's final seconds.
Asked after the game what he said to Hopson on Wednesday to light a fire beneath him, Tyler Smith smiled.
"He's the first All-American Coach (Pearl) brought here but being an All-American in high school only goes so far when you take the college floor," Smith said. "He's going to be a great talent, so I told him to keep attacking and driving to the basket ... and that's what he did."
Seemingly infatuated with the 3-point shot in earlier games, Hopson used his 6-7 height and elusiveness to go to the rim Saturday night. The results were dramatic. He was 0 of 3 from beyond the arc but 7 of 9 inside it. He finished 7 of 12 from the field and 5 of 5 from the foul line en route to his career-high point total.
Hopson said his conversation with Smith on Wednesday wasn't their first.
"Tyler's been coming to me for a while, telling me 'Scotty, you came here to be an All-American. You came here to score, to get buckets and put up numbers.' That's my job and he told me to go out there and do it."
Being a true freshman, Hopson said he was reluctant to aggressively look for shots at times. Smith's comments changed that, making Hopson feel free to fire at will.
"It really opened my eyes to what I need to be on this team," he said. "It showed me what my role is, so I can continue to do the right things."
Smith led Tennessee in points (20) and assists (5). Tatum chipped in 12 points for the Vols, now 11-5 overall and 2-1 in SEC action. Wayne Chism, who fouled out in just 11 minutes of court time, was held scoreless but grabbed 7 rebounds. Backup Brian Williams filled the void with 7 points and 11 rebounds in 25 relief minutes.
Tennessee shot a blistering 58.5 percent from the floor and won the backboards 37-29. The Vols committed 22 turnovers, however, and allowed Carolina to score 51 second-half points.
Tennessee led by 19 points (41-22) late in the first half but its players seemed to lose focus, enabling the Gamecocks to climb back into the game. Still, Pearl was pleased with the outcome.
"We did a nice job on the backboard and we had 16 assists on 31 baskets, so we did a better job passing the basketball," the coach said. "We shot 59 percent, which is the highest we've shot since (Game 1 versus) Chattanooga.
"Offensively, we got better looks and took better care in getting good shots. But turnovers were really a factor in the margin."
The Vols return to action Tuesday night at Vanderbilt. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Central time with ESPN televising.