The game was played in Colonial Life Arena, a definite advantage for the Gamecocks on most game days, but for Tennessee (20-6, 8-4) a 63-55 winner over South Carolina (14-12, 5-7) Saturday, it was just a matter of taking advantage of what was given to them. After trailing or playing close for 33 minutes of the ball game, the Vols continued to grind out plays, loose balls and opportunities in the middle of the lane to score or get to the free throw line, where they outscored the home team by 9 points in an 8-point game. In a game of 13 lead changes, 6 ties and a 10-19 turnover advantage for the host squad, one would think this was a formula for a home court victory. But in the end it would be the repeat of the decisive free throw advantage that teams have shown in each of the three consecutive losses by the Gamecocks that would make the actual difference, in lieu of poor shooting.
In the second half it was more of the same, with South Carolina continuing to concentrate on the perimeter and Tennessee grinding to push the ball in the paint and take only open perimeter shots, however the results began to shift late in the half as the Gamecocks were able to hold the lead or stay within 3 points for nearly 13 minutes, before the Vols began to take over. Tennessee Head Coach Bruce Pearl was able to counter the game plan of USC Head Coach Darrin Horn's aggressive match-up zone, with running offensive sets that constantly flashed players to the middle of the lane with quick feeds to attack the zone from the middle to score or interior pass to the blocks. This periodically left Bobby Maze open to hit a few key jump shots to establish some balance in a game where both teams shot poorly from the perimeter. The difference? The Vols used the paint in the second half to shoot 52.4% (11-21, 2-4), while the Cocks continued to struggle at 30% (9-30, 1-12). The Vols were 15-24 from the free throw line during the final period, getting there by concentrating on the inside, shooting only 4 long range shots. The Gamecocks were fouled less often obviously taking 12 long range perimeter shots and was 8-11 (72%) from the charity stripe in the second half.
Tennessee really only led in three key statistical areas, "shooting percentage" 48.8% versus 31.7%, "points in the paint" 32-22 and "assists" 13-3. South Carolina led in "free throw shooting percentage" 66.7% against 59.4%, "offensive rebounds" 13-10, "second chance points" 12-9. With a cold perimeter afternoon, the home team had become the disadvantaged squad as the odds of percentages in basketball took over, the high percentage shot either went in or generated foul shot opportunities for Tennessee and the low percentage shot failed to fall for South Carolina and rarely did they get to the foul line.
The Garnet Army was again alive and well represented, but in the end they could not will their basketball heroes to victory, as Tennessee countered a sloppy game with grinding and getting to the free stripe twice as many times as the host team. South Carolina will only wonder what could have been if the free throw percentage advantage could have been matched with equal trips to the line. Only three South Carolina players even shot free throws, Downey, Raley-Ross and Austin Steed (1-2).
The free throw difference, along with a 20-3 Tennessee bench scoring difference assisted the Vols in grinding out a late 17-3 run that virtually rendered the game a Tennessee victory.
Brandis Raley-Ross continued his scoring support and balanced play, as the senior guard scored a team high 16 points on 5-10 shooting (2-6 from 3 and 4-7 from the line).