Defense carries Tennessee up
Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012 7:00 pm
By JEFFREY COLLINS
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tennessee’s defense keeps fueling its surprising run to the top third of the Southeastern Conference.
The Volunteers (16-13, 8-6) never trailed and held South Carolina to just 32.4 percent (22-of-68) shooting in a 73-64 win over the Gamecocks on Saturday night.
South Carolina had 22 more shots than the Volunteers, and Tennessee turned the ball over 21 times. But the defense stepped up, holding a fourth SEC team in the last seven games under 37 percent shooting.
“The guys are really taking pride in defending. They are excited about getting stops,” first-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
The Volunteers, picked to finish 11th in the SEC, have won six of their last seven to stay in a fourth-place tie with Alabama in the SEC as they try to get a bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
“I’m just proud of the work the guys are putting in,” Martin said. “They haven’t waivered. They stayed the course. They continued to get better in practice. For a program, it’s always good when you are getting better later.”
Things just keep getting worse for South Carolina (10-18, 2-12). With two games left in the season, the Gamecocks are guaranteed the worst record in the SEC for the second time in six years and are assured of a decline in SEC wins in each of coach Darrin Horn’s four seasons. Going back to 2011, South Carolina has lost 23 of its last 27 SEC games.
Horn said he told his players after the game to keep their eyes on the final two games instead of a season that is dangerously close to becoming just the fourth time the Gamecocks have lost 20 games in 104 seasons of basketball.
“Let’s go get better and get a couple of those and head into the tournament, and that’s a new season,” Horn said.
Trae Golden had 21 points, Jordan McRae added 16 points and eight rebounds, Jeronne Maymon scored 14 points and eight rebounds, while Cameron Tatum had five points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Volunteers.
Tennessee jumped out to an 11-point lead several times in the first half, including after a McRae 3-pointer put the Volunteers up 27-16 with seven minutes to go until halftime.
But Tennessee couldn’t stop its sloppy play. The Volunteers had 11 turnovers in the first half, including giving the ball away on three straight possessions in the final two minutes. A 3 by Bruce Ellington cut Tennessee’s lead to 34-32, but Ellington missed another 3 at the buzzer that would have given South Carolina the lead at the half.
The Volunteers then opened the second half on a 16-7 run.
“The run they had to start the second half I think really hurt us,” Horn said. “We never really got over the hump. Every time it seemed like we were chipping away and getting close, they hit a timely shot.”
South Carolina missed 12 of its first 16 shots in the second half.
“If you’re not shooting the ball well, turning the ball over having mental mistakes on offense, you have to have something on the other end,” Tatum said.
After a three-point play by Anthony Gill cut South Carolina’s deficit to 50-42 with 11:56 to go, Tennessee went on a 16-9 run that put the Volunteers ahead 66-50 with just over four minutes to go.
“I thought we did a really good job in the second half of defending against shots when we needed to,” Martin said.
Ellington led South Carolina with 19 points, while Malik Cooke added 17 points and 10 rebounds. Starting forward Damontre Harris was in foul trouble all game, missing his only shot and having just one rebound in 11 minutes before fouling out.
Tennessee has won 11 in a row over South Carolina and remains one of two teams that Horn has not beaten. Wednesday’s opponent, Mississippi State, is the other. Horn is 0-10 in his nine-year career against the Volunteers.
South Carolina had just 10 turnovers, but poor shooting once again did the Gamecocks in. It was their fifth game in the SEC shooting under 35 percent, including their loss earlier this month at Tennessee. They made just 10 of their 23 shots in the paint.
“You get to the rim, and you’ve got to make them,” Horn said.
Published in The Messenger 2.27.12