COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee shot the ball as well as it has all season in building a 17-point halftime lead over South Carolina.
As it turned out, the Vols needed almost every bit of that lead to win their ninth straight in their series with the Gamecocks.
Tennessee held on for a 73-69 win over South Carolina before an announced crowd of 10,137 at Colonial Life Arena on Thursday night.
The Vols (18-12, 8-7 SEC) played South Carolina (14-14, 5-10) without senior center Brian Williams, who missed the game with a back injury he suffered in UT’s 70-69 loss to Mississippi State last Saturday.
The Gamecocks took advantage, outrebounding the Vols 35-27 and pulling down 20 offensive rebounds to UT’s 19 defensive rebounds.
“We played so well so early ... and that was my anticipation,’’ Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I don’t think we let down in the second half; I think it was elevated play by South Carolina.
“They were getting the ball to the basket and they hurt us on the boards.’’
Pearl pointed out the Gamecocks rallied from 14 down to beat Vanderbilt earlier this season, and with their pressing, up-tempo style of play are well-suited for such rallies.
Indeed, South Carolina scored on 14 of its first 16 second-half possessions, and when Ramon Galloway (15 points) threw in a leaning, one-handed shot with 7:57 remaining, the Vols’ lead was cut to 58-54.
“It did get kind of tight, but we stayed confident out there,’’ said Hopson, who’s averaging 23.7 points per game over the past seven contests. “We knew we’d make the plays down the stretch to finish off this game.’’
Tennessee withstood the Gamecocks’ initial burst out of the halftime locker room and was back up by 11, 69-58, with 2:38 left after Hopson threw down his fourth dunk of the night.
South Carolina answered with an 8-0 run, cutting the Vols’ lead to 69-66 with 1:06 left when senior Sam Muldrow (24 points) scored on a conventional three-point play.
Hopson drove the lane on the ensuing possession and Muldrow recorded his fifth blocked shot, but UT came up with the loose ball and Melvin Goins hit a jumper with 32.7 seconds left to make it 71-66.
Cameron Tatum buckled down on defense on the Gamecocks’ next trip up the floor, forcing a tie-up with the possession arrow favoring UT.
“I was just trying to contribute all the way around tonight,’’ said Tatum, who scored seven points and had a team-high four assists to go with four rebounds. “Coach Pearl has talked to me about making game-winning plays, and we needed that.’’
Goins split a pair of free throws with 19.8 seconds left to increase the Vols’ lead to 72-66.
South Carolina came up empty on the offensive end, and Harris hit one of two free throw attempts with 8.3 seconds left to seal the win.
Harris was 11-of-14 shooting from the foul line and led the team with six rebounds.
“It got close, but I pretty much knew the whole time we were going to get it done,’’ said Harris, who played some of his minutes at center. “We’re really coming together at the right time, and this gives us some confidence.’’
The Vols led by as many as 20 points in the first half. UT’s 13-of-21 shooting (61.9 percent) through the opening 20 minutes was their best mark in a half this season.
Tennessee returns to action at noon on Sunday in Thompson-Boling Arena against No. 20 Kentucky (21-8, 9-6).
The Vols can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the SEC East with a win over the Wildcats, depending on Saturday’s results involving Georgia at Alabama and Florida at Vanderbilt.