Tennessee (10-9, 3-4 SEC) had what might’ve been its best win of the season on Saturday afternoon, knocking off No. 24 South Carolina (17-2, 4-2 SEC), a team that came into the game with a 17-1 record on the season, by a final of 78-69.
Here are five quick observations from the big win for the Vols:
1. Second-half 3-pointers give UT the edge: Three-point shooting was nowhere to be found for the Vols heading into halftime against the Gamecocks against Saturday. The Vols made just one in the first half and were a combined 3 of 17 on the week up to that point after a miserable shooting night against Vanderbilt on Wednesday evening. But the Vols suddenly caught fire, making their first six of the second half. The Vols finished a blazing hot 9 of 12 from beyond the arc in the second half. It’s an over-simplification, but with the size limitations of this roster, the Vols’ games have consistently come down to if they’re hitting their perimeter shots. They took care of business in that area over the final 20 minutes on Saturday to get the big W.
2. Punter U: Senior guard Kevin Punter was the catalyst in that hot-shooting second half, hitting 5 of 6 from 3-point range on his way to a career-high 36 points in the game. That was the most points by a Vol player since Ron Slay had 38 in 2003. Even with a few minutes on the bench early in the second half due to foul trouble, Punter finished the second half with 27 points, which included 12 free throws, many of which came down the stretch as the Vols finished out the win. Punter also contributed on the defensive end with four steals.
3. Vols step up on the defensive end: Rick Barnes called it the best 40 minutes of defense from the Vols this season. South Carolina came into this game averaging 78.4 ppg and shooting 44.2% from the field. The Vols held the Gamecocks to 69 points and 42% shooting. Tennessee forced 17 turnovers and stalemated in rebounding against the bigger SC squad at 34. Barnes cited increased focus, better communication and extensive film study for UT’s improvement after an embarrassing performance on that end against Vanderbilt on Wednesday. Some credit needs to go to freshman forward Kyle Alexander as well. He played limited minutes, but grabbed six rebounds and gave the Vols a bit of a presence inside when they were in the zone look. “He’s a guy that brings a little length in there,” Barnes said. “He keeps working.”
4. Free throws keep the Vols in it, help them pull away: Tennessee was excellent from the line – connecting on 30 of 32 (94%) on the afternoon. Punter (14 of 15) led the way, but Robert Hubbs III also contributed with a perfect 8-of-8 performance. There was a stretch of over 10 minutes in a sloppy first half when the Vols didn’t hit a field goal, but those freebies kept them in it. And when South Carolina looked to mount a late comeback, the Vols were 10 of 10 from the line in the final two minutes to secure the victory. “The fact is we did a great job on the free-throw line,” Barnes said after the game.
5. Vols finish strong, avoid the late meltdown: There were some similarities to Tennessee’s recent home game against Texas A&M – it was a game that the Vols were in control of for much of the second half, but it started to slip just a little bit late. South Carolina used a 6-0 run to cut UT’s lead to five points with under seven minutes remaining. But the Vols, after a timeout, regrouped and didn’t keep slipping. Instead, they responded with a 7-0 run of their own to push the lead back to double-digits and never let SC get any closer than six points after that point.
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) January 23, 2016