COLUMBIA, SC- Tennessee trailed for just 5:24 and led by six with 3:40 left, but the Vols turned it over four times in the game’s final minutes and South Carolina went 6 of 6 at the free throw line to give the Gamecocks a 63-61 win.
John Fulkerson’s career high 25 points helped carry a Tennessee offense that couldn’t get out of its own way Saturday, turning the ball over 20 times.
The game struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, as there were a combined 28 fouls called, 14 on each team. Both teams struggled to get into an offensive rhythm as Tennessee turned it over 12 times and South Carolina coughed it up eight times.
Both teams struggled to take advantage of the high foul count with South Carolina shooting 8 of 16 and Tennessee shooting 9 of 15 at the free throw line.
“I feel like that is the flow of the game, just fouling,” Fulkerson said of trying to get in a rhythm in a game with 50 plus fouls. “I think you’ve got to make your free throw shots. I think we’re a better team than what we shot at the free throw line, starting with myself.”
Fulkerson was one of many Vols to leave points at the free throw line as the junior hit 9 of 14 at the charity stripe. His five missed free throws and six turnovers were blemishes on an otherwise excellent 25-point, nine rebound performance.
“I think turnovers for myself and missed free throws really kind of dictated the game,” Fulkerson said. “I think if I don’t turn it over and I make my free throws we win the game easily. I really put this all on myself.”
Tennessee also hurt itself in the first half allowing eight South Carolina offensive rebounds and committing a lane violation on a Jordan Bowden free throw attempt.
South Carolina held tight for most of the first half, never trailing by more than five before using a 6-3 run to take a one-point lead into halftime.
The Gamecocks offense caught fire to open the second half, scoring on their first three possessions including a pair of 3-pointers to give South Carolina a seven-point lead.
Santiago Vescovi answered with his second 3-pointer of the night to cut the deficit to four, starting a 12-2 Tennessee run that allowed the Vols to retake the lead.
Tennessee’s offense improved in the second half as the Vols shot 44% from the field and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc.
Tennessee used a Yves Pons layup, the final of his 13 points, to take a six-point lead with 3:40 to go, but the wheels would fall off for the Vols as South Carolina began to mount its late game comeback.
South Carolina mixed in zone defense and the Vols struggled to adjust while trying to manage the clock in the final minutes. Tennessee got stagnant on offense, missing a contested jumper and turning it over twice on the ensuing three possessions after pushing its lead to six.
“I tell those guys, ‘you have to get a shot off. I don’t care if it’s a desperation heave,’” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “They went zone and we have a good zone package. We got the ball where we wanted it.”
South Carolina used an AJ Lawson 3-pointer, just his third made shot of the night, to take a 59-58 lead with 1:38 left.
Vescovi turned it over on a swing pass on the ensuing possession before stealing the ball back in the backcourt, dropping it off to John Fulkerson who finished a contested layup to reclaim the lead.
Fulkerson would get a steal on the other end and the Vols had a chance to give themselves some breathing room. However, Tennessee ran the shot clock down before Vescovi was forced to create late offense. The freshman turned it over, leading to a transition opportunity. Maik Kotsar was fouled at the basket and the senior knocked down both to give the Gamecocks the lead.
“Jordan Bowden should have kept the ball to be quite honest with you,” Barnes said of the Vols’ empty possession. “That’s tough. We’ve talked about it, I think we’ve become a better offensive team, but not to get a shot off is frustrating.”
John Fulkerson would get the ball on the high post with a chance to put Tennessee back on top, but the junior was called for a charge while spinning away from a Gamecock defender.
Kotsar would make two free throws on the other end to push the Gamecock’s lead to three. South Carolina would foul Josiah-Jordan James, who recorded nine points and five assists in his return from injury, to take away the 3-point basket in the game's final seconds.
The South Carolina native knocked down the first free throw before missing the second intentionally. James would grab his own rebound on the intentional miss, but the freshman’s 12-footer missed just short.
Tennessee falls to 14-11 (6-6 SEC) with the loss as the Vols post-season chances continue to dwindle.
Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night when they host in-state foe Vanderbilt to Thompson-Boling Arena. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcasted on SEC Network.