Tennessee made it business as usual against South Carolina on a night that seemed anything but normal in many respects.
The Vols managed to get consecutive SEC men's basketball victories for the first time this season despite facing a rare, exotic defense and changing up their starting lineup and game plan.
Junior Skylar McBee scored a career-high 18 points and Tennessee (12-12, 4-5 SEC) won its 10th straight against the Gamecocks (9-14, 1-8), scoring a 69-57 victory before a crowd of 14,784 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night.
UT coach Cuonzo Martin shuffled his starting five for the fourth time since the start of SEC play and the second game in a row, improving to 4-0 in those games.
Martin also made the game-day decision to use a four-guard lineup at times against the Gamecocks' matchup zone, a defense that presents a different look each time down the floor.
"The sluggish part was just getting adjusted to the matchup zone,'' said Martin whose team trailed by as many as five points early in the game. "We told our guys, just pass and cut through it. Once we settled down and started making the extra pass, I thought this was one of our better games.''
The Vols shot 50 percent from the floor (19 of 38), 50 percent from 3-point range (10 of 20) and 80 percent from the free-throw line (21 of 26) to hold off a late South Carolina rally.
UT's 38 shot attempts were its fewest since Feb. 25, 1997, when the Vols attempted 33 field goals in a 74-64 loss to Kentucky.
Junior Kenny Hall made his first start in SEC play this season, replacing
freshman Jarnell Stokes who suffered a sprained right hand in practice Tuesday. Hall came up big with a game-high 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Likewise for sophomore point guard Trae Golden, who missed his first start of the season in last Saturday's 73-62 win over Georgia. Golden scored 14 points and dished out four assists in replacing freshman Josh Richardson in the lineup, as McBee slid over to the shooting guard position. Martin said Stokes could have played if necessary and that his status is day-to-day.
"Jarnell got hurt in practice,'' Martin said. "Competitive practice, guys getting after it.''
That theme carried over into the game, as the Vols held a 15-point lead as late as the 12:34 mark of the second half when Golden scored on a reverse layup to make it 51-36.
South Carolina, which has dropped four games in a row, answered with an 8-0 run that Brenton Williams capped with consecutive 3-pointers en route to his 11-point performance.
Highlights from Tennesse's home win over South Carolina, Feb. 8, 2012
The Gamecocks proceeded to press and disrupt the Vols until a Richardson jumper gave UT a 58-50 lead with 4:58 left and ended a 7½-minute drought without a field goal.
"It was a big shot, and not an easy shot to take in that situation for a young guy,'' Martin said. "But he stepped up and made the shot and got us over the hump.''
Richardson's pull-up provided just enough cushion, as the Gamecocks cut the lead to 58-55 with 4:07 left when Bruce Ellington scored on a three-point play on a night he led his team with 12 points.
The Vols held firm, however, as Golden and Jeronne Maymon (12 points) scored on back-to-back three-point plays, and the team went 6-for-6 shooting from the free-throw line during the final three minutes.
"We're learning how to close out games, but it's still something we have to get better at,'' Golden said. "It was huge for us to hold this lead and get this win.''
UT closed the first half on a 14-4 run to take a 35-27 lead into intermission.
McBee fueled the outburst, draining three consecutive 3-pointers before giving way to senior Cam Tatum, who proceeded to make a 3-pointer.
Tatum's basket provided him passage into a select group of 44 Tennessee players who scored 1,000 points in their careers.
It was the smallest UT home crowd since the Vols drew 14,692 in a 74-70 loss to Austin Peay on Dec. 10.
Tennessee returns to action at 4 p.m. on Saturday (TV: WVLT) at No. 8 Florida (19-5, 7-2).
The Vols defeated the Gators in the teams' first meeting, 67-56 on Jan. 7 in Thompson-Boling Arena, in what was both teams' SEC opener.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32