Cam Tatum on Tennessee's 73-64 win over South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Late in the game, Tennessee was ahead, almost comfortably so, but South Carolina hadn't conceded.
Two Gamecock defenders came flailing at Jordan McRae, reaching, trapping, slapping at the ball. They knocked it loose, McRae recovered — barely.
He found just enough of a grip to flip a pass out of harm's way to Jeronne Maymon for an easy layup, a foul and a free throw.
It was that kind of Saturday night for the Vols. A near turnover became a three-point play.
So many times in a 73-64 win over the Gamecocks, Tennessee walked a fine line between good and bad.
The Vols bled turnovers, 21 of them. They came in spurts and led to 23 South Carolina points.
"Not too many games are won when you have 21 turnovers,'' said point guard Trae Golden, "so I think the defensive end was huge for us.''
It was. And that's not all. Besides playing gen-erally tough defense and blocking six shots, Tennessee found ways to produce points at the free-throw stripe and win the boards.
When the smoke cleared, the Vols jogged out of a near-empty Colonial Life Arena, slapping high fives with orange-clad fans lining the tunnel to the locker room.
At the moment, life is good for Tennessee basketball.
A year ago about this time, a late-season UT win in Columbia was a brief respite in a turbulent season that was going the wrong direction and ultimately headed for a horrific crash.
The vibe has improved considerably in 51 weeks.
The team projected to finish 11th or 12th in the SEC, depending into which crystal ball you peered, is 8-6 in the league with two games to play.
The Vols are tied for fourth place and in contention for a first-round bye in the SEC tournament two weeks from now.
In a sense, Tennessee is playing with house money from here on out.
The eight wins match last year's SEC total. Beating the Gamecocks assured that Tennessee will finish at least .500 in conference play for a seventh consecutive season.
That speaks to staying power. It also speaks to the initiative and resilience Cuonzo Martin and his players have demonstrated in what was supposed to be a non-factor rebuilding year.
Remember, this is a roster that lost roughly 75 percent of its scoring and minutes played from last year.
"I'm proud of the work the guys have put in,'' Martin said. "They haven't wavered and they stayed the course.
"It's always good when you're getting better late. That's a great sign to see.''
This Vols are getting better. The team that lost to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston in mid-December has won six of its past seven games.
"It's a credit,'' said senior Cameron Tatum, "to the whole team, the whole staff, for us to keep plugging away.''
They kept plugging away Saturday night, wading through their own turnovers to make positive things happen.
That's progress. Five weeks ago the Vols played another SEC bottom-feeder on the road. They committed 20 turnovers at Georgia and it did them in, a 57-53 overtime loss that still haunts their postseason aspirations.
This time, they found a way. Credit Tatum. He made four turnovers but counter-punched with six assists to help the Vols shoot 52.2 percent from the field.
Credit Golden. He had one assist and six turnovers, a nightmare ratio for a point guard. But he kept attacking the rim, making buckets, drawing fouls and accumulating 21 points.
So in a head-to-head battle of two teams picked to go nowhere this season, one team is beating the odds.
It's not South Carolina. The Gamecocks are 2-12. Their fans stay home. Their coach, Darrin Horn, is on the hot seat.
So who better than he to appreciate Tennessee's defiant success.
Video highlights of Tennessee's win at South Carolina, Feb. 25, 2012
"Obviously,'' said Horn, "Cuonzo's done a good job. And they've had great athletic talent.
"The other thing is they've got a group of guys, that while they may not have been in major roles before, everybody in that locker room has been around a bunch of winning. So they have some expectations.''
More so than a lot of folks did. And they're not done yet.