Tennessee 73, South Carolina 69
COLUMBIA -- Sam Muldrow saved some of his best basketball for what was likely his final home start at South Carolina. But, thematic of USC's season, a career-high 24 points Thursday night from the senior center was only enough to keep the Gamecocks hanging around against Tennessee.
A 20-point first-half lead was cut to a single possession by Muldrow and South Carolina in the second half, but the Volunteers had two players equaling Muldrow's output in a 73-69 victory in front of about 5,000 fans at Colonial Life Arena.
Down 69-66 with 40 seconds left, Muldrow blocked his fifth and final shot of the night. But the Vols corralled the rebound and Melvin Goins buried a jumper that prevented USC from having a chance to tie.
"It was another case where we dug ourselves a hole because we didn't defend and weren't aggressive offensively," USC coach Darrin Horn said, adding that the team's youngsters continue to look "shell-shocked" by any level of adversity early in games. "Fueled by Sam, I thought our guys showed tremendous fight."
Vols freshman post Tobias Harris had a season-high 25 points, including 11 of 14 from the free-throw line. Junior wing Scotty Hopson added 24, including 16 in the first half.
"I think he's the best scorer in our league," Horn said about Hopson. "He's a guy who can do what he wants when he wants."
Tennessee (18-12, 8-7 SEC) is a part of a logjam from No. 2 to 5 in the SEC's Eastern Division, along with Georgia, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Those teams continue to distance themselves from last-place South Carolina, now 14-14 and 5-10 in the league.
The Gamecocks' regular season finale is Saturday at Mississippi State. Barring an improbable run in next week's SEC tournament in Atlanta, a win this weekend is vital for USC's bleak NIT chances.
South Carolina isn't going anywhere unless it figures out how to start games with more gusto. The Gamecocks shot 31.3 percent in the first half, making 2 of 9 3-pointers. It allowed Tennessee to shoot 61.9 percent and hit 4 of 5 3-pointers.
Hopson put on a dunk exhibition at times as the Vols stretched their lead to 40-20 in the final seconds of the half.
"It was the first half that hurt us," Horn said.
Horn has been reluctant to indicate players who more was expected from this season, but he said sophomore Ramon Galloway, who scored 15 points off the bench, is one.
Galloway had seven straight points for the Gamecocks during a stretch in the second half, cutting Tennessee's lead to 58-54 with 8:03 to play. Harris responded with two free throws and Cameron Tatum added two of his own to double the lead.
The lead got down to three after Muldrow's three-point play with 1:04 to go. But his block went into the arms of Goins, who buried the dagger of a jumpshot.
If only USC had played in the first half like it did in the second? It's been a recurring thought for the Gamecocks during the rocky conference schedule.
"I think probably make them juniors or seniors," Horn said, when asked what could prevent the slow starts. "It's that (shell-shocked) look that happens. We've tried 100 different things. When the other team has the lead, all the pressure to play and perform is out and we can just play. That's what we try to tell them from the start."
Muldrow -- the only Gamecock to play more than a season for Horn -- is the only one who seems to get the memo each night. The 6-9 Florence native added 12 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season and his second in as many home games.
"I can't say enough about Sam Muldrow and how he played tonight," Horn said. "I thought he played with a tremendous desire to win. He really fueled everything that we did. I'm really glad to see him do that in his last home game."