Staring up at the jumbotron, Kevin Punter Jr. started having flashbacks from two weeks ago.
Much like Tennessee did on Saturday, the Vols held a 10-point lead against then-No. 21 Texas A&M on Jan. 9 with four minutes, 14 seconds left to play, but suffered a 92-88 loss to the Aggies.
UT rewrote that script against No. 24 South Carolina, though, overcoming a late surge from the Gamecocks to capture a 78-69 victory inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I looked up at the clock with about four minutes left and I believe we were up 10 and I thought about that Texas A&M game,” senior guard Kevin Punter said. “I was just like there is no way we are letting this one go.”
After a three-pointer by sophomore guard Detrick Mostella gave the Vols (10-9, 3-4 SEC) a 68-57 lead with 3:42 left, the Gamecocks (17-2, 4-2) scored on back-to-back possessions with a three by Duane Notice and a layup by Justin McKie to cut UT’s lead to six with 2:24.
South Carolina wouldn’t come any closer, however, as Punter scored UT’s final 10 points, all from the free-throw line, to put an end to any comeback.
“I shoot free throws every day for situations like that, I guess,” Punter said. “Free throws are gimme points. Those are baskets where nobody is guarding you and you just have to make them.”
Punter was a large reason for why the Vols held the lead in the first place.
The Bronx, N.Y., native, who came into the game ranked ninth nationally in scoring average, tallied a career-high 36 points, 27 of which came in the second half.
Punter scored eight of the Vols’ first 11 points after halftime, including a three at the 16:16 mark, his second of five long balls in the final period, that let him know he was feeling it.
“KP was phenomenal,” UT coach Rick Barnes said. “He got into a flow and you could just see it from where we were that he was totally in control of what he wanted to do.”
Michael Carrera led the way for South Carolina with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting and added eight rebounds.
Punter’s hot streak proved to be contagious as the Vols shot 75 percent (9-of-12) from beyond the three-point line in the second half after hitting just one of nine in the first half.
"This team is a really great shooting team,” senior guard Devon Baulkman said. “It didn't surprise me. If everybody gets hot, it's going to be a long night for the other team. If we get good looks, we need to take those shots when we can."
Both teams combined for 90 points in the second half, but the offense didn’t show up in the opening period as UT and South Carolina hit just 15 of their 46 combined shots (32.6 percent) and committed a total of 19 turnovers.
Those struggles were reminiscent of the Vols’ late-game situations in their other two matchups versus ranked teams, Butler and Texas A&M, this season.
This time, though, instead of faltering, UT finished, securing its first win over a ranked team since beating No. 19 Arkansas on Jan. 13, 2015.
“(This game was) very important,” Punter said. “We had numerous ranked teams (on the ropes) and we pretty much blew it. For them to come to our home court and fight like they did and for us to handle it and pull out with a victory, that means a lot."