Bruce Pearl on beating South Carolina
"It's been a while since I've had three big-time dunks like tonight,'' said Hopson, who scored an SEC career-high 23 points. "Our team feeds off energy, and I wanted to get the crowd into it to energize our guys.''
A crowd of 18,402 welcomed coach Bruce Pearl back in Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time since Pearl finished serving an eight-game SEC suspension on Feb. 5.
Pearl's first two return games, at Kentucky and at Florida, ended with Tennessee (16-10, 6-5 SEC) on the losing end.
"It was good to get back on the winning track,'' said Pearl, who has won eight straight in the series against the Gamecocks (13-11, 4-7).
Prior to Wednesday, the most recent time Pearl coached a home game was on Jan. 5, when the Vols scored a runaway 104-84 win over Memphis.
While UT made its share of runs on South Carolina, leading by as many as eight points in the first half and 13 in the second half, the Vols couldn't completely put the Gamecocks away.
"I'm definitely not satisfied by the quality of play,'' Pearl said. "On offense, we had some turnovers and some sloppy play.''
While UT got to the line an SEC-high 35 times, it converted only 21 (60 percent). South Carolina also scored 20 points off 16 turnovers, and Gamecocks' all-time shot-block leader Sam Muldrow had six rejections.
"We were better than we've been on both ends of the floor in a few games,'' said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn, whose team lost its fourth in a row, despite Malik Cooke's 22 points. "We put two halves together against a pretty good team that's got a ton of veterans.''
On more than one occasion, the veteran Hopson turned the crowd on and the Gamecocks off.
Hopson's highlight dunks included an alley-oop from Goins, and another slam after he all but leaped over a defender.
"Those were energy plays, something that doesn't go in the stat sheet,'' Goins said. "You get a 50-50 ball, or a highlight play, it pumps everyone up. We were just feeding off Scotty's energy.''
And the Vols were taking feeds from Goins, who had more assists in the first half (four) than he had in the 94 combined minutes he played in the past three games (3).
"I just wanted to distribute the ball and get my teammates involved early and often,'' said Goins, who attempted two shots from the floor. "It's whatever Coach wants me to do to help this team to win. Just to see us play well and make shots felt good.''
Pearl was so impressed by Goins that he left the senior in for 31 minutes after planning to play back-up Skylar McBee more rotations.
"I thought (McBee) would have played more, but Melvin was playing well,'' Pearl said. "I think Skylar will continue to grow at the position.''
Melvin Goins talks about his adjustments
Pearl also gave kudos to Williams, who matched his career-high with five assists from the post.
"Brian is a patient passer,'' Pearl said. "He gets it, he takes his time with it and he reads the defense.''
Harris scored UT's first six points in the game, and the Vols raced out to a 14-7 lead.
South Carolina responded with an 8-0 run, taking what proved to be its final lead at 15-14 on a Ramon Galloway basket at the 8:01 mark.
But there was Hopson, getting to the foul line to hit a pair of free throws that triggered a 7-0 burst over the next two minutes as UT went on to a 33-25 lead at half.
The Gamecocks cut the Vols' lead to 44-42 at the 12:38 mark on a Galloway drive that capped a 7-1 run, but UT's bench turned South Carolina back.
A Steven Pearl reverse layup was followed by a McBee 3-pointer and a Josh Bone bucket in transition, and the Gamecocks failed to get closer than four points the remainder of the game.