KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There was no need to worry about how to handle the final 10 minutes this time.
Top-ranked Tennessee made sure early that the latter wouldn’t matter.
The No. 1 Volunteers, after spurting past South Carolina in Columbia two weeks ago with a strong closing run, did it in the first half Wednesday. A 19-3 run midway through the period propelled the Vols to an 85-73 shellacking of the Gamecocks, and dropped USC back to .500.
“I was real proud of the fight,” coach Frank Martin said. “Obviously we made shots, so when you make shots, it kind of hides some deficiencies. But we got no answer for them at the point-guard spot, and no answer for them at the small-forward spot.”
The Gamecocks (12-12, 7-4 SEC) stayed in fourth place in the SEC and are over the most difficult part of their schedule. Their chances of grabbing an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament even if they win their final seven regular-season games are remote; but that or close to that would clinch a top-four league finish and get them in better position to make a run in the SEC tournament.
USC will only play two teams in the SEC’s top half over its final seven games, and both of those games are at home. The Gamecocks have put themselves in position despite Wednesday.
“We got to win out these games,” Hassani Gravett said. “We got real good opportunities ahead of us and we look forward to them.”
They did still have to deal with Wednesday. Number-one team or not, USC felt it should have played much better than it did.
“It hurts my soul that we’re not a tougher team,” Martin said. “But these are the kids we got, they’re trying really hard and we got to keep working to get better there.”
* USC realized early it wouldn’t have much success in the paint, so it stuck to the perimeter. The Gamecocks smoked a season-high 14 3-pointers.
They only had 12 two-pointers.
“We didn’t come in saying, ‘Hey, we got to shoot 3s today,’” Martin said. “I was fairly pleased with how we played offense.”
It was the most 3s Tennessee has allowed all season.
* Chris Silva stayed out of foul trouble and contributed 17 points and 15 rebounds.
“They make you work,” Silva said. “They remind me of us three years ago.”
* Tre Campbell scored a team-high 19 points, with five 3s.
* Campbell swished a 3-pointer and USC trailed 19-18. There were nearly 12 minutes to go in the first half.
The Vols needed just over six to put the game to bed. A 14-0 run, followed by a Gravett 3, then five more Tennessee points dashed any lingering USC dreams of the upset.
USC never got within single digits of the lead in the second half.
* The Gamecocks were in position multiple times for putbacks or second chances, and the Vols’ interior defense simply said no. Tennessee accumulated seven blocks and 27 defensive rebounds.
Just the 10 of us
USC released a statement Wednesday afternoon detailing that Evan Hinson was quitting basketball to focus on football full-time. Hinson is entering his redshirt junior year in football and wants to make a run at a professional career.
“I understand, man. His clock’s ticking,” Martin said. “There’s an opportunity for him to go be a starting tight end. He’s been doing this year-round for three years. It hurts us, but when you take on a young man that’s a football player, that’s something you’ve got to be prepared for.”
While Hinson was never a prolific scorer, he knew Martin’s systems and could take up some minutes in relief of somebody else. Without him, USC is down to 10 players for the duration, two of them walk-ons Nathan Nelson and Quad Borup.
The Gamecocks host Texas A&M on Saturday.