Tennessee’s Wayne Chism had the best performance of his career while outdueling SEC leading scorer Devan Downey and led his team to an easy victory two weeks ago.
After needing Chism’s help to snap a losing streak, the 20th-ranked Volunteers could use it again Saturday against Downey and host South Carolina to maintain their faint SEC title hopes.
Chism scored a career-high 30 points to pace Tennessee’s 79-53 blowout of South Carolina on Feb. 6. Downey, averaging 23.0 points this season, had 26 despite missing 15 of 20 shots. The Vols held the Gamecocks to a season-low 27.6 percent shooting in the victory.
“When Chism is able to do things like that, inside and out, defend like he did and lead the team, he is a very difficult matchup,” coach Bruce Pearl said after the win. “South Carolina did not have an answer for him.”
Pearl’s team, however, couldn’t build off that victory, losing back-to-back road games to division rivals No. 17 Vanderbilt and No. 2 Kentucky.
The Vols (19-6, 7-4) snapped that slide in their return home Wednesday night, a 69-60 win over Georgia, but needed to overcome a five-point halftime deficit.
After missing 19 of their first 30 shots, Tennessee bounced back to shoot 56.3 percent over the final 20 minutes. Chism led the Vols with 16 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double in SEC play this season.
“There was a lot of pressure on us here tonight, and I think we came out a little tight,” Pearl said. “We had no cohesion. It was a very gutsy win.”
Pulling out that victory kept Tennessee three games back of Kentucky with five remaining. The Vols host the Wildcats on Feb. 27.
A loss Saturday would all but end their chances of a second regular-season title in three years.
Avoiding that defeat begins with trying to contain Downey. The Gamecocks senior guard, fourth nationally in scoring, has averaged 24.0 points his last four games despite shooting 31.8 percent.
He had 28 points Wednesday night at Arkansas and Sam Muldrow added a career-best 23, but South Carolina (14-11, 5-6) fell 92-79 for its third defeat in four games.
The Gamecocks, however, have won three in a row and four of five in SEC play at home, highlighted by an upset of Kentucky on Jan. 26.
“One of the things we’ve done is find a way to compete (at home),” coach Darrin Horn said Friday. “What stands out about our previous matchup with Tennessee was it was our worst game offensively. … We were able to score early and throughout the game (against Arkansas). That’s going to be important tomorrow, and I think we’ll have to do our best to limit them in transition. Containing Chism is a big part of that.”
Downey has averaged 30.2 points in those conference home games but had 16 in last season’s 86-70 loss to the Vols in Columbia. The guard has averaged 18.8 points in six career games against Tennessee, but the Gamecocks are 0-6 in those contests.
Tennessee, which has won its last two at South Carolina, leads the all-time series 32-23.