Tennessee freshman Scotty Hopson enjoyed a break-out performance and Tyler Smith took over in the clutch.
That proved to be just enough for the 24th-ranked Vols to pull out an 82-79 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Many in the crowd of 20,203 had already filed out of the arena when the Gamecocks made a late run.
Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 SEC) led by as many as 19 points in the first half and held what appeared to be a comfortable 17-point lead when Hopson dunked for two of his career-high 19 points at the 8:18 mark to make it 67-50.
“It was good to see Scotty be more aggressive, get to the rim and make more plays,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “He played with great poise. I had a feeling Scotty was going to break out.’’
The Vols had taken command of the game early with a pair of 12-0 first-half runs, and they stayed up by double-digits most of the second half despite Wayne Chism being limited to 11 minutes — and no points — due to foul trouble
But South Carolina (12-4, 1-2) battled back late, speeding up the pace of the game with pressure and forcing turnovers.
The Vols committed six turnovers in the six minutes after Hopson’s dunk, and when Devan Downey (19 points) converted a Josh Tabb turnover into a layup, the Gamecocks were within 75-70 with two minutes remaining.
“Pressure usually makes us better,’’ Pearl said, “but again when you’ve got a backcourt that’s not as experienced, you can see where the turnovers come from.’’
Half of Smith’s 20 points came down the stretch. Smith scored 10 points in a row for the Vols as they pushed the lead back up to 79-70 on one of his drives with 1:25 left.
“When the game’s gonna be won or lost,’’ Pearl said, “we get the ball to Tyler.’’
South Carolina countered by keeping the ball out of Smith’s hands in the final minute, fouling redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum in the backcourt and sending him to the free throw line.
Tatum, a 62 percent free throw shooter, missed the front end of two 1-and-1 free throw situations in the final 40 seconds, and then Bobby Maze split a pair of free throws with 15 seconds left.
After Maze’s miss, the Gamecocks’ Mike Holmes drove for a basket and drew a foul from Tatum with 6.1 seconds left.
Suddenly, UT’s lead was down to 82-79.
Fortunately for the Vols, Holmes missed his free throw and a loose-ball scramble ensued. Hopson came up with the ball, appropriately enough, as the buzzer sounded.
“I’ve been letting the game come to me,’’ Hopson said, “when I really needed to just go out and get it.’’
Pearl pointed out that Hopson’s breakout game occurred within the framework of one of UT’s better offensive performances.
“If you look at the stat sheet, you come away and say this would be more than a three-point win,’’ Pearl said. “We had 16 assists on 31 baskets and did a better job passing the ball.
“We shot 59 percent (58.5), the highest since Chattanooga; offensively we got better looks, but the turnovers were really a factor in the margin.’’
Pearl takes his work in progress on the road to face Vanderbilt on Tuesday (TV: ESPN, 9).
“That’s the team that took our No. 1 (ranking) away from us,’’ Smith said. “I know I personally haven’t forgotten that.’’