March 5, 2009
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Things hadn't gone Tennessee's way this season -- until now, when it matters most.
The Vols clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title -- and may have marked themselves as a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament -- with an 86-70 victory over South Carolina on Thursday night.
Tennessee (19-10, 10-5) hasn't always looked like a championship team this season -- the 10 losses are the most regular-season defeats in coach Bruce Pearl's four years. But the Vols found themselves down the stretch, succeeding their past two games at places few other teams have.
Tennessee stopped Florida's 17-game win streak at the O'Connell Center with a 79-75 win. South Carolina had won eight in a row at the Colonial Life Arena, including its previous seven SEC games.
"That was as good as we've played all year," Pearl said.
The Vols' speed, athleticism and intelligence broke open a tight game with a dominant second half.
With the game tied at 46, Prince's gliding moves fueled a 27-10 run to take control.
Tennessee had its way on the boards with a 44-22 edge and won going away despite South Carolina committing only nine turnovers.
After back-to-back losses to Ole Miss and Kentucky last month, Tennessee stood 7-5 in the league and in danger of falling out of the division chase. The Vols have recovered in a big way.
"We've had our ups and downs, and we're finally coming together," Smith said. "And I think we're going to take it on from here."
The Vols had expected a strong test from South Carolina, one of the SEC's surprises under first-year coach Darrin Horn. In January, Tennessee led the Gamecocks by as many as 19 before holding on for an 82-79 victory.
South Carolina had already won an SEC showdown against Kentucky and was primed to add to its NCAA tournament resume.
"We had to show a lot of poise," said Wayne Chism, who had 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks for the Vols.
Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick had 16 points each to lead the Gamecocks, who were blown out for a second straight game after a 96-83 defeat at Vanderbilt that wasn't that close.
Horn wasn't concerned what his team's last two losses might mean to its NCAA tournament hopes.
"We just want to play like we're capable of," he said. "The last two games we haven't come out and played like we need to. We've said from day one, when you don't do the things you do well, it's hard to be good."
Tennessee did plenty well, especially in the second half.
Prince had eight of his points during the streak, many as he drove past Gamecocks defenders to the hoop.
By the time freshman Scotty Hopson finished a three-point play, Tennessee led 73-56 and was celebrating its third division title under Pearl.
"It was a great basketball game, a championship game," he said.
At one point, when Smith forced an inbounds turnover for another quick and easy basket, Prince ran down, leaped in the air and bumped hips with his fellow junior.
"I'm glad we're doing a good job and I'm glad we're winning three in a row," Chism said.
Smith had six rebounds and Prince nine.
There was much on the line, and both teams played like it right away.
With less than 5 minutes gone, Tennessee led 16-15 with the teams combining to go 12 of 15 from the field. Fredrick, one of the Gamecocks' two departing seniors honored before the game, opened with three 3-pointers in the stretch as the teams looked ready to break all sorts of scoring marks.
While the shot-making slackened, the pace and intensity did not. At one point, the animated Pearl took off his sport coach and roamed the sideline in a white, short-sleeved T-shirt.
Smith, Prince and Chism helped Pearl not sweat so much in the second half.
"We've had our struggles and we are still working to become a better basketball team," Pearl said. But "those three have really stepped up, and you can just tell that they've been there and done that."