Tobias Harris on the South Carolina win
COLUMBIA, S.C. - It can no longer be denied. I don't know why it took us this long to figure out the obvious.
There are two Tennessee basketball teams this season, not just the conventional one.
The Road Vols started strong Thursday night and had enough poise in the end to hold on to a 73-69 win over hard-charging South Carolina at the Colonial Life Center.
The Home Vols will be the guys who show up at Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday to deal with Kentucky.
The Road Vols should petition the NCAA for their own invitation to the Big Dance. They don't want the Home Vols' shortcomings to weigh against them.
Taken as a whole, Tennessee might open the NCAA tournament in the 8-9 game two weeks from now, with a big, bad No. 1 seed lurking in the second round.
But that's not fair to the Road Vols. After all, March Madness won't be passing through Knoxville, so why figure the Home Vols into the equation?
Based on their own merits, the Road Vols might be a 3 seed, 4 at worst.
The Home Vols? They're NIT material.
It was the Road Vols who won in Pittsburgh, who carried the NIT Season Tipoff trophy out of Madison Square Garden.
The Road Vols finished 5-3 in SEC play. They were resourceful enough to steal one at Georgia and tough enough to dispel Memorial Magic and win at Vanderbilt.
They were a one-and-one away from winning at SEC champion Florida. They cruised by double digits at Auburn (without Scotty Hopson) and at Ole Miss.
And Thursday night, they were resilient enough to fend off an inspired South Carolina rally in the second half - with center Brian Williams home in Knoxville nursing a bad back.
The Home Vols can't seem to beat anybody anymore, not even Georgia or Mississippi State.
The Road Vols, however, opened brilliantly Thursday night. They blazed to a 20-point lead late in the first half, sinking shots inside and out.
"We sent a message,'' Pearl said. "We know we had business to tend to.''
Yeah, because of those slacker Home Vols letting down on the job.
In any case, the fast start should have come as no surprise. The guys in the orange uniforms generally do take care of business.
And this night, they had more business to take care of late. South Carolina gathered itself and carved away at a 40-23 halftime deficit to trail only 58-54 with 8 minutes to play.
It was the very scenario Pearl feared. Tennessee missed the 6-foot-10, 272-pound Williams against the SEC's best offensive rebounding team.
The Gamecocks snatched 20 offensive rebounds and won the battle of second-chance points 22-9.
John Fields, Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall played a combined 26 minutes and had one defensive rebound (by Fields) between them.
"If we could have rebounded the ball and taken away second-chance points,'' said Pearl, "it would have been a solid win.
"Tobias (Harris) was the only guy who had any kind of physical presence.''
Harris, the freshman, played his best game, scoring 25 efficient points: 7-of-9 from the field, 11-of-14 at the line.
Hopson stayed in All-SEC form with 24 points. The rest of the cast pitched in just enough here and there.
Come to think about it, even though South Carolina won the second half, it was still a solid win.
Williams' absence was a significant obstacle against a team that works the glass as fervently as the Gamecocks do. And when South Carolina finally made a game of it, the Road Vols refused to fold.
Melvin Goins stuck a clutch jumper with 32.7 seconds to play and the Road Vols followed it with two clutch defensive stops.
"We've shown some toughness on the road,'' Pearl said. "We've shown some character in difficult places.
"We felt like we had to get this win. We're still alive.''
The Road Vols aren't just alive. They're thriving.
It's the Home Vols he's got to worry about.