NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—South Carolina coach Dave Odom hoped his team could be dominant this season. The Gamecocks picked tournament time to live up to his expectations.
Tre Kelley scored 25 points and South Carolina finally beat No. 14 Tennessee, knocking off the Volunteers 79-71 on Friday to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Gamecocks (17-14) expected more out of this group, hopes that were seriously damaged when Tennessee swept them in the regular season. That included the SEC opener, when the Vols rallied from 15 down in the second half to win in Columbia, a loss Odom called “devastating.”
“I certainly envisioned at the beginning of the year we’d be able to beat anybody in the league and that would include all of the good teams,” Odom said.
“I’ve always felt a team is like a slow-baking cake. … Sometimes you can force it to move along and sometimes you can’t. What you have to keep doing is keep coaching, keep loving and keep kicking.”
South Carolina needed a win to keep its season alive while East division champ Tennessee (21-7) is a lock for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Gamecocks face Kentucky on Saturday in their third semifinals appearance under Odom.
The Vols have to worry about fading late in the season. They lost three of their last five regular-season games and were outplayed Friday.
“We’re not playing our best basketball right now and haven’t been,” first-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think that for the first time the confidence has to be shook a little bit.”
Kelley said the difference for the Gamecocks in their third game with the Vols was defense.
“I don’t think anybody really came into the game thinking payback or something like that. We just wanted to come in and play our game,” he said.
Tennessee added to its string of failures in the SEC tournament. The Vols dropped to 0-3 as the East’s No. 1 seed and haven’t gone past the second round since 1991.
“I can’t worry about what their tournament record was in the past. To me, that doesn’t have a lot to do with this team,” Pearl said.
Renaldo Balkman added 16 and Tarence Kinsey had 14 for South Carolina.
C.J. Watson led the Vols with 23 before fouling out, Chris Lofton scored all 12 of his points in the second half, and Dane Bradshaw had 10 for Tennessee.
South Carolina looked energized from the beginning, beating Tennessee’s press with easy layups. The Gamecocks grabbed the lead before halftime and never trailed again. They shot 70 percent (14-of-20) from the floor in the second half.
Ahead by six at the break, South Carolina pushed its lead to 12 after a hectic sequence when the Gamecocks got a steal but Tennessee stole it back near the basket. Kelley ended up with the ball and easily scored. Then Balkman hit a pair of free throws to put South Carolina up 48-36.
Lofton’s first 3-pointer of the game pulled Tennessee within nine with 10:32 to go. Rocky Trice scored inside and then got a steal off Lofton that led to Brandon Wallace’s pull-up jumper for a 54-41 lead.
The Gamecocks lost in the first round last year but ended up winning the NIT.
South Carolina beat Tennessee the way Pearl has been getting the Vols to win — with hustle and energy.
The Vols came into the game with the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio.
Tennessee had 21 turnovers, 12 of them steals by the Gamecocks. The Vols had only 12 assists. South Carolina had 21 assists, eight from Kelley.
“A big, big factor in South Carolina’s favor,” Odom said. “They do a great job of forcing turnovers and making assists. Didn’t happen today.”
South Carolina was ahead 33-27 after the intense final minutes of the first half. The Gamecocks took a one-point lead on Dwayne Day’s basket, and Pearl was whistled for a technical apparently for his reaction to the play. Kelley made the two free throws.
Stanley Asumnu stripped the ball from Kinsey and dunked at the other end to draw the Vols within one again.
Kelley then hit a 3, Balkman got a Tennessee turnover, and Kelley made another basket after South Carolina grabbed the rebound from a missed free throw.