Photo gallery (photos by Jenny Dilworth)
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin has been feeling good about his team over the past few days, even as the Gamecocks were in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
On Saturday, Feb. 25, against Tennessee at a nearly sold out Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks finally put it all together for the first time in a while.
South Carolina returned to its excellent defensive form and someone other than Sindarius Thornwell stepped up offensively as the Gamecocks blasted Tennessee, 82-55.
"There was a lot of emotion in that locker room coming into this game today," Martin said. "Coaches, players, there was a lot of emotion there. Positive emotion, and we were obviously able to come out and play well."
The Gamecocks (21-8, 11-5 SEC) used that emotion to jump out to an 18-point first half lead, and even though the Vols cut it all the way down to four points early in the second half, South Carolina regrouped to run away with the win.
Thornwell finished with just 15 points after averaging nearly 30 over the past five games, but PJ Dozier stepped up with 19 points and two other players scored in double figures to complete the team effort.
"Their spirit has been real good again," Martin said of his team. "I was so optimistic about our kids because they were not allowing a negative result in a game (Florida) to impact who they are (and) who they've earned the right to be."
Tennessee (15-14, 7-9 SEC) scored the first points of the game, but the Gamecocks quickly answered. Dozier's nice drive into the lane resulted in a bucket before a Chris Silva slam gave the Gamecocks the lead. Thornwell and Silva both added a pair of free throws to make it 8-2 at the under-16 media timeout of the first half.
The Vols responded with five straight points to make it a one-point game, but South Carolina went on another nice run. After not getting the start for the first time all season, Maik Kotsar came off the bench to hit a jump hook that stopped Tennessee's run.
Coming off a solid game at Florida, Sedee Keita also came off the bench for a layup that made it 14-7 Gamecocks. Another bench player, Rakym Felder, used a nice crossover to pull up from just inside the three-point arc, nailing the shot to give South Carolina a nine-point cushion. Overall, the Gamecocks finished with 23 points from their bench.
"Our bench was really good today," Martin noted. "They all helped us."
Dozier kept his strong play going with four straight points before a nice drive and finish by Thornwell forced Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes to call timeout with his team trailing, 24-9, with 8:54 left in the first half.
After extending the lead to 27-9, South Carolina would slow down a bit on both sides of the floor, allowing Tennessee to close the gap. A couple of turnovers resulted in Tennessee baskets, and a three-point play got the Vols within 32-20 with just under four minutes to play in the first half.
A 3-pointer by Felder restored a 15-point lead, but the Vols used an 8-0 run to get back within single digits. After four quick Tennessee points Martin called timeout, but it didn't help as the Vols scored four more to make it 37-30.
It would be 38-30 at halftime as Dozier scored 11 points to lead the Gamecocks, who made 14-of-30 (46.7 percent) field goals. Tennessee made 12-of-30 (40 percent) field goals in the first half.
Hassani Gravett received the start over Kotsar, and his defensive effort and passing ability paid dividends for South Carolina.
"(Coach) called my number, so I rose to the occasion," Gravett said.
The Vols started out the second half strong as well to cut into the lead even more. A basket by Robert Hubs III made it 38-34, nearly erasing the Gamecocks' 18-point lead from earlier in the first half.
However, Duane Notice happened.
First, the senior nailed a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound to restore an eight-point lead. Then, with his team up seven, Notice made back-to-back threes from the same spot to bring the roof off the CLA and give South Carolina a 51-38 lead. The Vols were forced to call timeout again with 14:34 left in the game.
"I was feeling pretty confident," Notice said. "I think Sindarius had gotten the ball, and when he looked up at me and gave me that look, I knew I had to spot up. I'm the type of guy that if I make one, I feel like I can make every three after that."
South Carolina would get two more baskets to make it a 12-0 run and commanding 55-38 lead.
Treys by Felder and Thornwell made it 63-44 and the Gamecocks received their first 20-point lead of the night when Thornwell dunked one home with 4:22 left in the game.
The Gamecocks would eventually come away with the 27-point victory to snap the losing streak. Dozier's impressive performance netted him 19 points, five rebounds and four assists. Thornwell and Notice added 15 points apiece while Felder finished with 12.
South Carolina made 27-of-60 (45 percent) field goals while the Vols knocked down 18-of-54 (33.3 percent). Tennessee was particularly limited in the second half as it made just 6-of-24 field goals in the final 20 minutes.
The Gamecocks return to action on Tuesday, Feb. 28, when they host Mississippi State on Senior Night. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. and can be seen nationally on ESPNU.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**