ATLANTA — Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl said he knew the Vols would find a way to win.
The rest of the people in the Georgia Dome and the fans watching on television were in suspense until the final horn sounded on UT’s 89-87 victory over lowly South Carolina on Friday afternoon.
The No. 4 Vols (29-3) advanced in the SEC tournament for the first time in three years and will play at 1 o’clock today (TV: WVLT) against Arkansas (21-10), an 81-75 winner over Vanderbilt.
UT defeated the Razorbacks 93-71 on Feb. 13 in Knoxville, but Pearl expects a different Arkansas team.
“It’s obviously a better team that looks like they are really sharing the ball,’’ Pearl said. “They are going to their strengths, they have identified their roles and utilizing their depth really well.
“They are getting better point guard play; Gary Ervin is really the captain of that ship.’’
To earn the right to play the Razorbacks, UT had to find its way out of troubled waters against the fired-up Gamecocks (14-18).
South Carolina said and played like it was motivated by its embarrassing losses to the Vols (80-56, 89-56) this season.
UT said and played like it was determined to make history, and as Pearl said, found a way to win.
So when Chris Lofton needed a screen to get open on an inbounds play with UT down 87-86 with 16.7 seconds left, Wayne Chism found a way to set what South Carolina coach Dave Odom called a “roadblock’’ pick.
When Lofton needed the winning shot to fall, after going 1-for-9 beyond the 3-point line, he swished it with 11.4 seconds to play — later explaining that, “as a shooter, you always expect to make the next one.’’
Finally, when South Carolina inbounded the ball with 1.1 seconds left, The Vols’ defense rose to the challenge and prevented a final shot.
“This is the season we’ve had,’’ Pearl said. “I sleep at night knowing we’re going to find a way.’’
The Gamecocks’ way was through the hands of guards Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick, who in addition to limiting their team’s turnover tally to eight, scored 26 and 24 points, respectively.
“We were unable to guard their guards off the bounce,’’ Pearl said. “Downey is terrific. Our guys shake their heads … he’s the best point guard in the league.
“In any given game, he can put that game together.’’
The Vols were fortunate that Chism put together one of the best games of his career.
Early on, Chism was the only consistent scoring threat, as he poured in 15 of his career-high 23 points in the first half, helping UT to a 41-40 halftime lead.
Lofton hit a 3-pointer to open the second half, but South Carolina battled back and took its first lead of the game, 51-50, on a pair of Downey free throws with 14:45 left.
At the 10:28 mark, with the Vols clinging to a 63-62 lead, Tyler Smith finally awakened, scoring his first basket of the game with an inside move.
It was a preview of things to come. Tyler Smith scored 11 in a row for UT from the 5:58 mark until 38.7 seconds remained on the clock, when his basket gave the Vols an 86-85 lead.
Dominique Archie, Tyler Smith’s nemesis throughout the game, answered with a basket inside to put South Carolina up 87-86 with 21 seconds remaining.
The Vols brought the ball up the court and called time out with 16.7 seconds left to set up Lofton’s shot.
“Chris was going to get the ball,’’ Pearl said. “JaJuan was the first option, he was probably pretty open, (but) Chris was going to get that touch.’’
That was fine with JaJuan Smith, who, despite scoring 19 points, was comfortable seeing the ball go to No. 5.
“When he gets that look in his eye, like he did when coach drew that play up, we know to get him the ball,’’ JaJuan Smith said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here smiling if it wasn’t for him making big shots time after time.’’
Pearl, however, looked deeper when breaking down the victory.
“Brian Williams’ play was terrific,’’ he said, referring to the freshman center’s 4-of-4 shooting, nine points and three rebounds in 13 minutes of play. “What a lift he gave us with rebounding and scoring around the basket.
“And Josh Tabb — three assists, no turnovers and he played great defense,’’ Pearl said. “Fans are going to remember Chris’ shot, or Tyler scoring 11 in a row, and don’t forget about Wayne in the first half … It’s just been that kind of year.’’