At the breaking point of the game and season, South Carolina drew its toe across the court and said, “No more.”
The Gamecocks stretched a four-point lead to 19 in a sizzling second-half run on Saturday, beating Tennessee 82-55 to snap a three-game losing streak and restore foundation to their hopes for the NCAA Tournament. Having frittered away most of a 15-point lead by once again refusing to do the things that earned that lead, USC (21-8, 11-5 SEC) halted the Volunteers’ rally just in time.
“Obviously, our guys, their spirit has been real good again,” coach Frank Martin said. “That’s why after the Florida game, I was still so optimistic about our kids. That’s a special group of guys.”
The Gamecocks led by 15 with less than three minutes to go in the first half but a nearly six-minute halftime-spanning stretch without a field goal let Tennessee (15-14, 7-9) back in the game. Their lead cut to four by settling for jump shots instead of the drives that claimed the advantage; unable to figure out the Vols’ zone defense while its was being pummeled, USC felt the game slipping away.
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Yet the Gamecocks kept making a shot here or there to stay ahead, and when Duane Notice drilled a 3-pointer with 15 minutes to play, USC led by 10. That led to Grant Williams missing a quick jumper, but Kyle Alexander grabbed the rebound and rose for a one-handed monstrous tomahawk jam. He delivered but didn’t finish, the ball clanging off back rim and starting a USC runout.
The Gamecocks quickly fed Notice in the same spot and the senior stepped into the pass. Tennessee’s chances to win vanished as soon as the ball hit nylon.
“When (Sindarius) gave me that look, I knew to spot it up,” said Notice, who scored 15. “I’m the type of guy, if I make one, I feel I can make any other one after that.”
P.J. Dozier finished with 19 points, taking several shots inside the arc, while Thornwell had 15. The Gamecocks’ battered bench, missing in action over the past six games, exploded for 23, led by 12 from Rakym Felder.
“This certainly resembles what we’ve been doing, in terms of defensive intensity,” Notice said.
Martin shook up the starting lineup, benching power forward Maik Kotsar for backup point guard Hassani Gravett, and the added speed and athleticism woke USC’s dormant defense. The ferocious pressure rattled Tennessee into not getting any clean looks, much less making shots, as USC spurted to a quick 18-point lead.
“I thought he impacted the game in a positive way,” Martin said, pointing out it wasn’t a Kotsar problem on defense, it was a team problem. “I thought he was better defensively than he’s been.”
There were lapses, when Gravett and Chris Silva each picked up their second fouls, but USC tightened after Notice’s second 3 to hold the Vols to 33 percent for the game. Tennessee had 20 turnovers while USC had seven steals and blocked six shots.
“We’re kind of tired of giving up leads and giving away games,” Notice said. “I think it was imperative, like Hassani said, to come out with that intensity.”
USC remained in line for a top-four finish in the SEC and double-bye in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks host Mississippi State on Tuesday for their Senior Night.
NOTE: Thornwell broke a tie with Jimmy Foster for the fifth-most points in program history. He is 141 behind Devan Downey for fourth.
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