KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl doesn’t like calling timeouts to stop opponents’ runs. That’s the job of 3-point shooter Chris Lofton.
Lofton scored 23 points, including consecutive 3s that ended a late run by South Carolina, to lead the 19th-ranked Volunteers to an 81-65 victory on Saturday.
South Carolina (11-9, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) cut the lead to 55-52 with 8:34 left when Stephen McDowell’s 3 capped an 8-2 run.
But Lofton hit two straight 3-pointers and C.J. Watson made two free throws to push the lead to 11 with 6:49 to go.
Pearl, in his first year at Tennessee, says he believes his team is conditioned enough to overcome runs.
“That’s when we can separate and get on a run. Chris Lofton is a great example. I can’t believe how open he got. I can’t believe he made those shots,” Pearl said. “Had I called timeout, I couldn’t have given him a better look.”
The Vols (14-3, 5-1) won their third straight game and won at home for the first time this season as a ranked team.
A week ago, Tennessee defeated then-No. 2 Florida at home and set off a big celebration that resulted in the Vols getting back into the Top 25 and receiving a $5,000 fine from the SEC for fans running onto the court.
The crowd didn’t swarm the court after beating South Carolina, but the fans were loud in cheering the first-place team in the SEC East.
The Gamecocks lost at home to the Vols earlier this month and couldn’t maintain the momentum from beating Florida this week.
The Vols led the entire second half, but South Carolina kept chipping away at the lead. Tre’ Kelley cut it to 69-63 on a 3-pointer with 3:10 left, and Dane Bradshaw answered for Tennessee with a three-point play.
Kelley scored again on a drive, but those were the final points in the game for South Carolina. Tennessee outscored the Gamecocks 9-0 over the final 2:20.
Andre Patterson had 13 points and 12 rebounds, Watson added 11 points and Stanley Asumnu had 10 for Tennessee.
Lofton, one of the best 3-point shooters in the SEC, didn’t make a 3 until the second half. He finished 4-of-11 from beyond the arc.
“It seems the more tired Chris Lofton got, the better he shot,” Pearl said.
Lofton said his play was terrible in the first half but improved.
“I think they were making a run. I think we put a little dagger in them, hitting those 3s,” Lofton said.
Tarence Kinsey scored 12 points, and Kelley and Dwayne Day each had 11 for the Gamecocks, who were outrebounded 43-30.
“We were only down six points with about 3 minutes on the clock and then gave in with a rash of errors at the end,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “Anybody who saw the game knows it was not a 16-point game, but still we go home with that on our docket.”
The margin of defeat was the second largest for the Gamecocks this season after a 19-point loss to Clemson in December.
South Carolina was ahead by as many as seven points in the first half.
The teams traded the lead, but the Vols outscored South Carolina 8-2 in the final minutes of the half to take a 33-28 lead.
In the second half, Tennessee pushed its lead to 47-37 after an 11-4 run that ended with Asumnu’s dunk off an alley-oop pass from JaJuan Smith.
The Vols got many of their points at the free throw line. They were 15-of-21 while the Gamecocks were only 2-of-4.
The Vols were ranked No. 23 for one week after beating Texas last month. They lost and dropped out of the poll before they played at home.