3 Observations: Tennessee 56, South Carolina 55

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    When your team shoots less than 30 percent from the floor, less than 20 percent from three, and has nearly 20 turnovers, you’re not supposed to win.

    But that’s exactly what the Vols did on Saturday.

    Tennessee improved to 10-5 overall and 2-1 in SEC play with an ugly, confusing 56-55 victory over South Carolina (8-7, 0-2 SEC) at home. The Vols trailed by as much as eight points in the second half, but they stormed back and took a seven-point lead themselves with just under eight minutes to go.

    From there, the game would be close for the remaining six-plus minutes, and it took a bizarre sequence of events at the end for UT to seal away the win.

    Tennessee had the ball with just about six seconds separating the game clock and shot clock. The Vols wound down the time, and Jordan Bowden lofted up a three. His shot missed the rim and hit only the backboard, and the scrum for the rebound ended up with the ball going out of bounds off South Carolina with 10.4 seconds remaining and four seconds on the shot clock.

    The Vols’ ensuing in-bounds play was nearly turned over, and Santiago Vescovi somehow saved it from going out of bounds, threw the ball up in the air, and the Gamecocks came down with it right before the shot clock went off. South Carolina sprinted down the floor, but instead of calling a timeout, tried to get a quick bucket and catch UT off guard.

    Instead, John Fulkerson drew a charge, and the Vols were given the ball back with 1.4 seconds remaining.

    Tennessee’s in-bounds pass was tossed nearly the length of the court, and Bowden somehow got possession just long enough to place the ball safely on the court before he fell out of bounds, letting the clock hit all zeroes.

    It was an ugly and bizarre ending to an ugly and bizarre game. But somehow, Tennessee won.

    Here are our biggest takeaways from the Vols’ second-straight SEC win.

    Defense Saves the Vols

    Tennessee’s offense struggled time and time again to put points on the board. Whether it was missing wide open threes or making poor decisions on shots, the Vols’ offense was just straight abysmal for most of Saturday.

    Luckily for UT, their defense never wavered, and it kept them in the game despite the cold shooting performance. And that defensive effort is ultimately what helped Tennessee win.

    The Vols forced 19 South Carolina turnovers, blocked 11 Gamecock shots, and held South Carolina to just 32.8 percent shooting. Time and time again, the Vols’ defense came up with big stops or drew key fouls. Time and time again, the Vols’ offense would waste those opportunities.

    That is, until about midway through the second half.

    Tennessee’s offense finally started to pay back their defense, trailing 39-31 with 13:47 to go. The Vols would shut down South Carolina on offense for the next six-plus minutes, and UT’s offense finally woke up, putting Tennessee on a 20-5 run to grab a 51-44 lead with 7:23 to go.

    From there, the Gamecocks would fight back, but UT’s defense held strong for the most part, and their offense did just enough to come up with a win.

    As a team, Tennessee shot 25.9 percent from the floor and just 19.4 from three. The Vols also turned the ball over 19 times, marking the seventh time in 15 games this season that UT has turned the ball over 14 or more times in a game.

    Yet, somehow, Tennessee found a way to win.

    Top Two Scorers Fire Blanks

    Jordan Bowden woke up from his offensive slumber in Tennessee’s last game on Tuesday against Missouri, dropping 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Before that game, Bowden had been ice cold in his previous two games against Wisconsin and LSU, shooting a combined 3-of-25 in those two games.

    On Saturday, the stone-cold Bowden showed back up.

    Tennessee’s lone active scholarship senior and leading scorer couldn’t buy a shot against South Carolina. Aside from a three after a highlight-reel block on the other end, Bowden’s offense was non-existent. He shot 1-of-17 overall and was 1-of-12 from three. He also had three turnovers and just two assists, bringing down only three rebounds as well. He finished with six points.

    Luckily for Bowden, he was strong on defense, blocking two shots and getting two steals along with playing good perimeter defense. But his offense was abysmal.

    Bowden’s misfires have been more and more consistent recently. After a strong start to the season where Bowden was making 45.7 percent of his shots and 44.1 percent of his threes in UT’s first seven games, he’s made only 23.5 percent of his field goals over his last eight contests, and that includes just 20.7 percent of his threes.

    It wasn’t just Bowden who couldn’t make a shot, though. The Vols’ second-leading scorer on the year, Yves Pons, also couldn’t hit a bucket.

    Pons failed to make a single field goal on the afternoon, missing all seven of his shots and finishing with just four points. Pons was at least effective in other areas, though, blocking five shots, bringing down seven rebounds, and dishing out two assists while turning the ball over three times.

    When your top two scorers go a combined 1-of-24 from the floor, you’re not supposed to win. But Tennessee did.

    Free Throws Make a Difference 

    Not only did Tennessee’s defense provide a big advantage for the Vols, but South Carolina’s inability to make free throws cost them big time.

    Tennessee attempted 28 free throws in the game and made 22 of them. South Carolina attempted 22 free throws, but they connected on just 13, including going 7-of-15 from the charity stripe in the second half. The Vols, meanwhile, were 14-of-16 from the free throw line in the second half.

    South Carolina has struggled all season with shooting free throws, heading into Saturday’s game making just 61.5 percent of their free shots. That trend continued against the Vols, and it bailed Tennessee out multiple times down the stretch.