COLUMBIA, S.C. —When you lose, there's not much to say. Heads hang. Blank eyes stare straight ahead.
Sunday afternoon, Tennessee's men were a bunch of chatterboxes. They practically had to be run out of Colonial Life Arena or they would have been hanging around yakking it up with friends and family until dark.
But the smiles and banter weren't to end there, at the site of the Vols' 66-61 win over South Carolina.
"The first thing we said when we walked in (the locker room),'' said guard Trae Golden, "is we could actually talk on the plane ride home.''
Now there's a switch. Tennessee finally broke through for a road win.
There have been some somber plane and bus rides this winter. Digesting the reality of scoring only 36 (or 38) points. Mentally rehashing the shot that wouldn't fall here, the spurt of ill-timed turnovers there.
"To go on the plane ride home with peace of mind,'' is what coach Cuonzo Martin was looking forward to when his day's work was done.
Peace of mind has been a rare commodity in a season characterized by questions and disappointments.
The low point might have come Wednesday night in a listless home-court loss to Georgia.
Beating lowly South Carolina for the 12th consecutive time isn't reason to throw a parade. Don't look for the Vols to pop up Monday morning in anybody's bracketology.
There were, however, several positive developments to ponder.
Not the least of them was the return of the aforementioned Golden.
It wasn't just that Golden, the junior point guard, was back on the court after a two-game absence to mend a strained hamstring. It was more than that.
"That's the Trae we're used to seeing,'' said teammate Jordan McRae. "That's big for us, seeing him aggressive, playing hard.''
It was the Trae the Vols hadn't seen in a while.
Golden entered the fray five minutes in. He played 27 minutes of the remaining 35 and scored 16 points, his most productive outing since Dec. 18 against Western Carolina.
"One thing about Trae,'' said Martin, "is he's a scoring guard. We don't need him to go out and focus on trying to get 10 assists every night unless they come to him.''
Golden had but one assist Sunday. The best indicator in his stat line was hitting 8-of-10 at the free-throw line, his most attempts in his eight SEC games played.
That spoke to his aggressiveness. Not that the Vols don't need assists to fuel their often-stagnant offense, but seeing Golden bent on attacking the rim was encouraging.
He converted tough three-point plays on consecutive possessions in the second half and shortly after, nestled in a floater to put UT ahead 46-45.
"I'm not Phil Pressey or any of those guys,'' Golden said. "I'm myself.
"It's no secret I haven't been playing as well as I can. So to get going, being aggressive, making a few shots, it was great for me.''
Missouri's Pressey is a conventional point guard, a set-up man who can score when needed. Tennessee doesn't have one of those.
Golden, a scorer by trade, is UT's best option at the point. And when he's injured — or sitting because he's not playing up to Martin's expectations — the Vols really struggle to find any fluidity in their halfcourt offense.
Sunday was another heavy turnover day, 18 to be exact. Normally, that's not a winning number. But South Carolina has limitations of its own and was more forgiving than Arkansas or Ole Miss.
So, credit to the Vols. The game was hanging in the balance and they won the final three minutes with some nice ball movement, clutch 3-point shooting and dependable work at the free-throw stripe.
And to a man, they were relieved to see Golden's steady handiwork throughout.
"Trae looked really good today,'' said Skylar McBee. "It just gives you another offensive threat.
"He really gave us a boost.''
"That,'' said Martin, "is the old Trae Golden, when he's being aggressive and getting to that rim.
"I don't think we get out of here alive without Trae Golden.''
The Vols did get out of here alive. And they were happy to talk about it all the way home.