The last time Tennessee took on South Carolina at home, it won by 33 points and turned the contest into a game-long celebration of its first outright regular-season SEC championship in 41 years.
If the Volunteers can hold off the visiting Gamecocks on Saturday night, the reaction will likely be more of a relief than a party.
Fresh off a record-setting individual scorching by Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, No. 24 Tennessee (10-5, 1-1) looks to avoid its first three-game home losing streak since Feb. 14-21, 2001, when it faces a South Carolina team that hasn’t won in Knoxville in nearly seven years.
The Vols come off a 90-72 loss to the Wildcats on Tuesday night, when Meeks hit 10 3-pointers and scored a Thompson-Boling Arena-record 54 points.
“We tried to deny Jodie Meeks the basketball, but to show how pitiful we were, Meeks did anything he wanted to do,” said coach Bruce Pearl. “We tried to guard him as a team, but we were not able to get anything done.”
Defense wasn’t the only thing lacking for Tennessee. Leading scorer Tyler Smith had a team-high 19 points but missed 9-of-14 field goal attempts and the Vols shot just 37.9 percent from the floor. They are shooting just slightly better - 39.6 percent - in losing three of their last four.
“Tonight we were not competitive,” Pearl said of Tuesday’s game, which marked the team’s most lopsided loss at home since a 72-54 defeat to then-No. 17 Alabama on Feb. 9, 2005.
Perhaps good memories from facing the Gamecocks (12-3, 1-1) last season will help improve Tennessee’s confidence. Taking on South Carolina in the SEC tournament quarterfinals in Atlanta, Smith had 13 points, seven boards and five assists as the Vols advanced 89-87 on March 14.
In the regular-season finale five days earlier at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee shot 61.8 percent and outscored the Gamecocks 51-19 in the second half en route to an 89-56 victory. The Vols had clinched the regular-season conference title in their previous game, an 89-86 win over Florida on the road, making for quite the celebratory homecoming.
South Carolina will make its first visit to Knoxville since that defeat, and it will look to get back on track following an 85-68 loss to LSU on Wednesday, which snapped a three-game winning streak. A victory would have given the team its first 2-0 conference start in 12 seasons.
The Gamecocks were led by leading scorer Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick, who each scored 18. Downey, who had a game-high 26 points in last season’s SEC tournament loss to the Vols, missed 12-of-19 from the field against LSU while matching a career high with eight turnovers.
“It’s hard to win a game when your best player … has eight turnovers,” said South Carolina first-year coach Darrin Horn, who is 0-1 in his career against Tennessee. “I think he tried to do a little bit too much tonight. He needs to learn to let the offense come to him.”
South Carolina will likely have to do a better job at the foul line on Saturday as well if it hopes for its first victory in Knoxville since a 94-60 win on Jan. 23, 2002. The Gamecocks missed eight of their first 10 free throws against the Tigers and finished a season-worst 36.4 percent (8-of-22) from the foul line.
South Carolina is ranked 262nd in the nation in free-throw shooting, making just 65.2 percent. Tennessee, meanwhile, is struggling as well, hitting at a 59.6 percent clip in its last two games.
The Volunteers hold a 30-22 edge in the all-time series.
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