COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee turned to its bench with seniors Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince in first-half foul trouble.
The Vols’ non-starters, known throughout coach Bruce Pearl’s tenure as the “Bench Mob,’’ responded by out-scoring South Carolina’s subs 20-3.
“I think the key today was our confidence in the bench,’’ Pearl said, “and it was our willingness to play the bench that made the difference.’’
The 20th-ranked Vols scored a 63-55 victory over the Gamecocks before a crowd of 15,622 at the Colonial Life Arena.
Next up for Tennessee (20-6, 8-4 SEC) in a showdown for third in the SEC East at Florida (19-8, 8-4) on Tuesday (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.).
“These teams keep coming at us,’’ said senior Bobby Maze, who led UT with 14 points and three assists, “and they know they have to beat Tennessee to get into the (NCAA) tournament.’’
South Carolina (14-12, 5-7) started Saturday’s game like a team with its back against the wall.
The Gamecocks led most of the opening half en route to a 28-24 lead at intermission with Chism playing only 10 minutes after picking up two fouls and Prince being limited to six minutes while getting three fouls.
Considering the Vols also had 11 first-half turnovers, Pearl considered it a moral victory of sorts to be down only four points on the road at that point in the game.
“We just survived it; we stayed patient, and tried not to let them run us out of here,’’ Pearl said. “To be down at the half by four, playing the way we did, I told the team we were in good shape.’’
Chism (11 points, nine rebounds) and Prince (10 points, seven rebounds, three steals), were thinking the same thing.
“I really wasn’t worried because our teammates had me and Wayne’s backs when we got into foul trouble,’’ Prince said. “I figured me and Wayne would have an impact once we got back into the game.’’
Kenny Hall played 20 minutes and scored eight points, and Brian Williams had five points and seven rebounds in his 14 minutes.
The Vols came out gunning in the second half, scoring on four of their first five possessions before a Maze 3-pointer at the 15:03 mark gave UT a 34-33 lead — the Vols’ first lead since 9:23 of the first half when Brandis Raley-Ross (16 points) hit a trey to put South Carolina ahead 16-14.
There were two ties and seven lead changes during the next 6½ minutes before Prince hit a pair of free throws to key a decisive 8-0 run down the stretch. Prince, 8-of-10 shooting from the free-throw line, capped the run with another pair of free throws to give the Vols a 51-46 lead with 7:14 remaining.
South Carolina’s Devan Downey (15 points) answered with a 3-pointer — one of only four shots he made in 18 attempts — to pull the Gamecocks within 51-49 with 6:42 left.
But Tennessee’s exerted itself from there on. South Carolina missed its next four shots and had four turnovers in the next five minutes, enabling the Vols to build a 60-49 lead with a 9-0 run.
The Gamecocks finally connected on a shot by Lakeem Jackson (10 points), but with only 1:53 left the fans were already filtering to the exits.
“The difference really was that their bench gets 20 (points) and we get three from ours,’’ said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, now 0-5 in his career against Pearl. “They’re just so athletic and deep.’’
Perhaps, but not deep enough for Pearl’s liking.
“We didn’t anticipate Cameron (Tatum) playing, but when J.P. picked up those fouls Cameron played four minutes,’’ Pearl said. “There was some hodgepodge going on out there.’’
Hodgepodge, Bench Mob, whatever you want to call it.
“It was a team effort and a total team win,’’ Maze said. “We know we all need each other to keep winning.’’
Going Deep: The Vols played four substitutes double-digit minutes: Skylar McBee (14), Hall (20), Steven Pearl (15) and Williams (14). South Carolina’s Johndre Jefferson (13) was the only non-starter on the Gamecocks to play more than 10 minutes.