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3 Observations: South Carolina 63, Tennessee 61

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

If you like foul calls and free throws, Saturday’s Tennessee vs. South Carolina game was for you.

A combined 52 fouls were called on the Vols and Gamecocks on Saturday night, but unlike the last time these two teams played, UT couldn’t take advantage of South Carolina’s poor free throw shooting.

Tennessee (14-11, 6-6 SEC) fell in the closing seconds to the Gamecocks (16-9, 8-4) by a score of 63-61. The Vols led for nearly 24 minutes of game time, but South Carolina pulled ahead in the final 22 seconds on made free throws by Malik Kotsar, and that was enough to ice away the game.

Josiah-Jordan James went to the line with 3.7 seconds left after South Carolina fouled him before he could get off a three with UT trailing 63-60. James made the first free throw, then he intentionally missed the second. The freshman was able to get his own rebound and put up a shot as the clock wound down.

His shot didn’t fall, and John Fulkerson didn’t have enough time to corral the miss and put up a shot of his own.

The Gamecocks snapped a five-game losing streak to the Vols with the win, and they’ve now won eight of their last 10 contests after losing to Tennessee 56-55 in Knoxville on January 11th.

Here are our three biggest takeaways from the Vols’ disappointing loss to South Carolina on the road.

Lack of Fundamentals 

Yes, the officials were far from ideal in Saturday’s contest, but the Vols have nobody but themselves to blame for the loss against South Carolina.

Tennessee was careless with the basketball, missed too many free throws, and gave up too many second-chance opportunities. The Vols turned the ball over 20 times, allowing South Carolina to score 22 points off turnovers. Tennessee was outscored 12-3 in second-chance points thanks to Carolina capitalizing on 11 offensive rebounds (UT had 10).

Most importantly, Tennessee wasn’t good from the free throw line.

The Vols are one of the better free throw shooting teams in the SEC, and South Carolina is the worst in the league. On Saturday, both teams stunk it up from the charity stripe, and it cost UT more. Tennessee finished just 17-of-28 from the free throw line while Carolina went 19-of-32. But the Gamecocks hit several free throws late in key moments, and UT was inconsistent after a good start from the line.

All those mistakes added up, and despite some good defensive play for most of the game, the Vols’ sloppiness on offense came back to bite them.

Wasted Strong Performances 

Tennessee’s poor overall team effort hurts for a number of reasons, but two individual players really have to feel the sting after their good showings.

John Fulkerson was effective — though he did have two crucial traveling calls go against him — and totaled a career-high 25 points. Fulkerson also brought down nine rebounds, finishing one rebound shy of another double-double. The redshirt junior also had a steal and a block.

Josiah-Jordan James returned to action on Saturday, marking his first appearance in two weeks. James had missed the last four games after re-aggravating a groin/hip injury, but he was able to give it a go against South Carolina, and he played well. James played for 30 minutes off the bench and totaled nine points, five assists, three rebounds, and just one turnover. He tied Santiago Vescovi for the team lead in assists, but Vescovi turned the ball over four times.

Yves Pons had a good game as well, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks in 29 minutes.

Everyone else, Jordan Bowden included, had fairly unremarkable or bad nights. Bowden was 1-of-7 from the floor, Vescovi finished 2-of-8, and Davonte Gaines was the only other Vol to score, making two of his four free throws.

Hopes Dashed?

South Carolina isn’t a bad team, but they aren’t exactly a great one, either. Losing on the road in Columbia to an average Gamecocks team isn’t a resume-breaker, but with the way the rest of the Vols’ schedule plays out to end the regular season, Saturday’s loss sure felt like a death blow to UT’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee now falls to 14-11 on the season and 6-6 in conference play. After a home match-up with Vanderbilt on Tuesday, the Vols have to travel to Auburn to take on the Tigers on Saturday, stay on the road for a contest against Arkansas on the following Wednesday, then host Florida, travel to Kentucky, and finish the season with a home game against Auburn.

Unless the Vols can somehow pull off a couple upsets down the stretch, they’ll likely miss out on the Big Dance this year.

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