Tennessee was supposed to be the team bothered by a quick turnaround — not South Carolina.
But it was Wayne Chism’s turn-around move in the post that led to the senior scoring a career-high 30 points to get the best of the Gamecocks.
Tennessee, just 42 hours removed from a win at LSU, scored a convincing 79-53 victory over South Carolina before a crowd of 21,003 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday night.
The win gives the 14th-ranked Vols (18-4, 6-2 SEC) much-needed momentum heading into their games at No. 18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday and at No. 4 Kentucky (21-1, 6-1) next Saturday.
“We know the challenges of playing in Nashville and Lexington . . . we’re looking up at those two teams in the standings,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We also understood of the importance of this game tonight.’’
No one was more focused than Chism, who appeared to have a sixth sense each time he received the ball in the post with a defender behind him.
“They give you an angle that you can feel, without really seeing them,’’ said Chism, who was 11-of-17 shooting including 2 of 4 beyond the 3-point arc. “I could basically hit that shot with my eyes closed, and I think a couple of times I did.’’
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, now 0-4 against Pearl, said Chism played at a level not seen before.
“Chism outplayed us; he had not finished like that all year long,’’ Horn said. “Tonight I thought he did a great job of finishing over the top of our guys.’’
Pearl only had one day to prepare the Vols for well-rested South Carolina — the Gamecocks hadn’t played in seven days — but he saw Chism would be the key offensively.
“South Carolina did not have an answer for him, and our guys did an excellent job getting him the ball,’’ Pearl said. “We took full advantage of Wayne, and when we do that, we’re a pretty good team.’’
Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson each scored 11 points for the Vols, and freshman Kenny Hall pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds.
Junior post Brian Williams was reinstated to the team and dressed out after serving a nine-game suspension, but did not play. His return coincides with what could be a serious ankle injury to Cameron Tatum, who left the game at the 1:01 mark of the first half and did not return.
“It did not look good; that ankle came down pretty severely,’’ Pearl said. “He’ll get X-rays and we’ll have to see; I can’t speculate.’’
UT fans didn’t need to speculate very long about the outcome of the game with the Vols roaring to a 30-16 halftime lead.
South Carolina star Devan Downey struggled early and often as he was held under 30 points for the first time in four games.
Downey still got 26 points, but he was only 5-of-20 shooting from the floor, and 13 of his points came from the free-throw line.
Downey also was limited to one steal — two below his season average which ranks third in the nation — and the Gamecocks forced only six turnovers.
“We did a better job valuing our possessions,’’ Pearl said. “We had six turnovers, which has been our low over the last five years.’’
And, once again, Pearl pointed to his defense as another key.
“The defensive has been a constant,’’ Pearl said. “That’s the second team we’ve held to 16 points in the first half (LSU was the other).
“Your teams take on the identities of your best players, and Wayne has got this team defending.’’
Chism, who has taken over the reins since All-SEC forward Tyler Smith was dismissed, gave his former teammate an assist in the leadership abilities he’s exhibiting.
“I learned from Tyler,’’ Chism said. “Even when he was having his good nights offensively, he shared the ball and kept everyone else rolling, and that’s what I try to do.’’