COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl turned the Vols loose with the SEC Eastern Division title on the line Thursday night.
“That was the difference, coach let us run and gave us the opportunity to make plays,’’ UT junior J.P. Prince said. “He knew they’d run and jump out at us, and he told us he wasn’t going to hold us down calling plays. That showed trust.’’
Tennessee responded with a runaway 86-70 victory over South Carolina before a sellout crowd of 18,000 at the Colonial Life Arena.
“That was as good as we’ve played all year,’’ Pearl said. “We stayed aggressive attacking them.’’
The Vols (19-10, 10-5 SEC) clinched at least a share of their second consecutive SEC East title and third in Pearl’s four years with the win over the Gamecocks (20-8, 9-6).
Tennessee concludes the regular season at noon Sunday against Alabama (16-13, 6-9) in Thompson-Boling Arena before traveling to Tampa, Fla., for the SEC tournament next week.
UT is the No. 1 seed in the East and opens play at 7:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-8) and the West No. 4 seed (Ole Miss, Mississippi State or Alabama).
Pearl likes the Vols’ momentum, and was quick to credit his junior front line for their domination in Columbia.
“Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince, those were the reasons people picked us to win this season,’’ Pearl said. “I thought they really stepped up tonight.’’
Smith led the Vols with 22 points and added seven assists and six rebounds. Prince had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Chism had 15 points and eight rebounds.
UT sustained a flurry of South Carolina 3-pointers early in taking a 44-40 lead into the half.
While the Gamecocks were bombing away from outside (9 of 22 beyond the 3-point line), the Vols were dominating in the paint and on the boards, out-rebounding South Carolina 21-9 in the first half and 44-22 in the game.
“They were killing us early (outside) when they were fresh and furious,’’ Pearl said. “But I think our length became a factor. They had to shoot over us.’’
South Carolina made its bid to take over the early goings of the second half when Zam Fredrick scored three of his 16 points on a trey to tie the game at 46-46 with 18:44 left.
But the Vols responded, attacking the Gamecocks’ extended defense as Bobby Maze scored in transition to spark an 8-0 run that Josh Tabb capped with a layup off a new out-of-bounds play drawn up by Pearl.
Brandis Raley-Ross hit a 3-pointer to break the UT run and pull South Carolina back to 54-49 at the 14:55 mark.
But the Vols stayed poised amid the loud, circus-like environment. Chism split a pair of free throws and followed with a 3-pointer, and then Prince hit just his second 3-pointer of the year to pump the lead back to 61-49 with 11:38 left.
South Carolina failed to pull within double digits again as the Vols continuously split the Gamecocks’ traps to score in transition, going up by as many as 20.