KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee was desperate for a win after losing three straight nail-biters, and then the No. 22 Volunteers lost leading scorer Chris Lofton.
Behind the support of the home crowd, Tennessee pulled out a 64-61 win Saturday over South Carolina with 21 points from JaJuan Smith and 14 points and 10 rebounds from Wayne Chism.
“We had a good gut check tonight for lots of reasons. On the heels of three losses all really coming down to last-possession situations and then losing our All-American, a lot of teams could have folded,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “Stuff like that doesn’t build character. It reveals it. I saw a lot of guys that obviously had to step up.”
The Vols (14-5, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) had lost by a total of six points during their skid.
Lofton, who leads the SEC in scoring at 22.5 points a game, sprained his right ankle early in the second half after scoring only four points. Pearl said Lofton’s injury would have to be evaluated further on Sunday after the swelling goes down.
Tennessee led most of the game, but the Gamecocks (10-7, 0-4) made several runs in hopes of ending their losing streak which they extended to five games. At least this one was closer.
South Carolina lost their last two games by 34 points to Florida and 38 to Kentucky. The Gamecocks rallied from being down 15 early in the second half to three with 2:50 left.
Tennessee scored twice to get it back up to seven with 53.8 seconds left, and South Carolina resorted to scoring quickly and fouling. Tennessee went 5-of-6 from the foul line the rest of the way to seal it.
Ramar Smith added 10 points for the Vols.
Tre Kelley led South Carolina with 18 points while Dominique Archie added 12 and Evaldas Baniulis had 10. Brandon Wallace had 15 rebounds.
The Gamecocks were only 2-of-5 from the foul line. Tennessee was 16-of-22.
“The story of the game was clearly free-throw shooting. They came in as not being such a great free throw shooting team, and they shot the ball extremely well today and often,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said.
“I told our team we made some improvement, but we have to continue to hold ourselves accoutable for executing properly, giving great effort and playing smarter.”
The Vols’ losses were 82-81 at Vanderbilt, 68-66 at then-No. 5 Ohio State and 83-80 at Auburn. In those games, Tennessee failed to make clutch free throws.
JaJuan Smith was in a shooting slump during the losing streak, but came to life at home and with Lofton out of the game.
“We all got together and said we have to do this like we do in practice when he’s catching his breath. It’s just a longer breather right now and we just kept to the game plan,” JaJuan Smith said.
Lofton made two baskets in the second half before he fell to the floor in obvious pain after South Carolina scored with 18:11 remaining. He was trailing the transition play.
Lofton did not put weight on his right leg, and two teammates carried him off the court.
The Gamecocks had a three-point play by Wallace afterward to cut it to seven, but the Vols went on a 9-1 run. JaJuan Smith’s basket with 13:32 left made it 46-31, and Odom immediately called timeout.
South Carolina had a 9-0 run that cut it to 46-40 with 8:43 to go, and had a chance to get closer but Dwayne Day missed a pair of free throws.
The Gamecocks kept chipping away and got it down to three with 6:15 left on Kelley’s 3, but they could get no closer.
This is South Carolina’s worst start to an SEC season since going 0-7 in 1998-99 under coach Eddie Fogler.
“It’s hard to win at home, so it’s definitely going to be hard to win on the road with a hostile crowd like they had,” Kelley said.
The Vols had trouble stopping Archie until he had to go to the bench with his fourth foul three minutes into the second half.
Tennessee went into halftime ahead 33-22 after leading most of the first half and despite Lofton having no points. The Gamecocks led in the opening minutes, but eight straight points by JaJuan Smith gave the Vols a 10-7 lead with 14:05 remaining.
South Carolina’s defense in the first half limited Lofton’s open shots, Pearl said, so the Vols adjusted at halftime.
“I didn’t make it too much (adjustment) in the first half because we had some game plan as far as we thought they’d take Chris away and with an 11-point lead I thought we were doing fine,” Pearl said.
Tennessee’s Jordan Howell, who started at point guard earlier in the season, played for the first time since Dec. 18 after breaking his right hand. He missed seven games. Freshman Ramar Smith remained the starter.