Vols cold-cock Cocks

You got the idea it was going to be Tennessee's night when J.P. Prince nailed a 3-pointer – his first since Nov. 28 – midway through the second half of Thursday night's game at South Carolina.

Sure enough, Prince finished with a season-high 20 points and the Vols finished with an 86-70 victory that clinched at least a share of the SEC East title. Tennessee can claim sole possession of the division championship by beating Alabama Sunday at noon in Thompson-Boling Arena. No matter what happens Sunday the Vols (19-11 overall, 10-5 in league play) will be the Eastern Division's No. 1 seed for the SEC tournament by virtue of sweeping South Carolina (20-8, 9-6) during the regular season.

Moreover, the East title is Tennessee's third in Bruce Pearl's four years as head coach.

"Who woulda' thunk it?" Pearl quipped on his post-game show.

No one would've "thunk it" who saw the Vols unravel in back-to-back road losses at Ole Miss (81-65 on Feb. 18) and Kentucky (77-58 on Feb. 21). Since then, however, the Big Orange has rallied to beat Mississippi State (81-76), win at Florida (79-75) and at South Carolina – putting together its longest winning streak of the league season.

Whereas the earlier meeting with Carolina in Knoxville saw the Vols build a 15-point halftime lead, then hang on to win 82-79, Tennessee finished with a flourish this time. Tied 46-all early in the second half, the Big Orange put together a 25-7 explosion that sealed the deal by producing a 71-53 lead with 7:43 to go.

Prince sparked the game-winning surge by scoring 10 of UT's 25 points. A steal and layup padded the lead to 50-46. His 3-pointer widened the gap to 61-49. A putback and foul shot boosted the bulge to 64-51 and a pair of free throws extended the lead to 69-53.

The gap peaked at 20 points (83-63 and 85-65) as Tennessee wrapped up perhaps its best 40-minute effort of the season. The Vols shot 54.7 percent (35 of 64) from the field and 45.4 (5 of 11) from 3, while limiting the Gamecocks to 41.9 (26 of 62) and 40.9 (9 of 22).

As expected, Carolina guards Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick (16 points each) outplayed UT's guards. But Tennessee's frontcourt trio of Tyler Smith (22 points, 7 assists), Prince (20 points, 9 rebounds) and Wayne Chism (15 points, 8 rebounds) dominated on the inside, helping UT win the backboard battle 44-22 and beat SC 52-30 on points in the paint.

Pearl thought the Vols' familiarity with big-game pressure – and South Carolina's lack of it – contributed to the lopsided outcome.

"You can tell we played for championships before," the Vol coach said. "We've played for championships before, and we really stepped up."

Certainly, the Vols' poise was tested early. Carolina hit six of its first eight shots – three of them 3-pointers by Fredrick – yet Tennessee answered the opening salvo and led 16-15 at the first TV timeout.

"In my mind, the key to that game was when both teams were uncontrollably scoring at the start of that game – it was 16-15 at the first TV timeout," Pearl said. "We could've been down 10 the way South Carolina came out and the way Zam Fredrick on Senior Night was shooting the ball....

"We took their best shot."

The Vols then delivered their best shot early in the second half – the 25-7 explosion – and it produced a knockout. They held Downey, who scored 12 first-half points, without a second-half point until the final six minutes, by which time the Big Orange held a 73-56 lead.

"Josh Tabb and Bobby Maze did a really good job," Pearl said. "We built that wall (defensively) in the SEC season, and it's managed to be effective against several clubs.

"And it was certainly effective against this club."


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