South Carolina men's basketball suffers worst loss since joining SEC, 85-42

COLUMBIA — South Carolina men's basketball was a 17.5-point underdog in Saturday's matchup against No. 9 Tennessee, and the Volunteers came away even further ahead, beating the Gamecocks 85-42 on their home court.

The 43-point lost was South Carolina's worst margin of defeat at Colonial Life Arena in program history, beating the previous record set in 2007 by a 38-point loss to Kentucky. It was also the worst loss against a conference opponent since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1991-92.

"They're a really good team that that did everything that they normally do and also played well, so it was a combination of a lot of different things," South Carolina coach Lamont Paris said. "You have another team that's still trying to figure out who they are, how it works at this level, what my role is in games where we're playing a top team and team with a little number next to it ... When that collided today, it wasn't good from the start for us."

The Gamecocks (7-8, 0-2 SEC) had their lowest-scoring second half of the season, putting up just 21 points in both the first and second halves. It was also the team's worst field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage. Tennessee's 85 points tied the most that South Carolina has allowed this season, matching its loss to Colorado State.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW:South Carolina women's basketball vs. Mississippi State: Scouting report, score prediction

GG JACKSON:How GG Jackson, South Carolina men's basketball star, is adjusting to college play at age 17

GAMECOCKS FOOTBALL:South Carolina football coach Shane Beamer's salary more than doubles in 2023 as contract extension set

Shooting efficiency collapses under Vols defense

The Gamecocks are far from an elite shooting team averaging 40.5% from the field and 32.4% on 3-pointers, but their performance against Tennessee (13-2, 3-0) was a new low. South Carolina finished 12-of-48 from the field, its worst percentage of the season, and went 4-of-26 from beyond the arc. Only five players recorded points, and just two hit multiple field goals. The one positive was South Carolina's 93.3% shooting on free throws, accounting for 14 of their points.

The defeat marked the Gamecocks' lowest-scoring game this season, easily surpassing the previous low of 53 points in the loss to Colorado State. That wasn't a surprise though considering Tennessee's defense ranks among the best in the nation: third in scoring defense, 15th in forced turnovers and 13th in rebounds per game.

"They just know how to win, and they know what winning looks like," senior Hayden Brown said of the Vols. "There's a little bit of scouting report that we could have adjusted but I think at the end of the day, it's what does our (competitiveness) look like? It's going to be a reflection for us to look ourselves in the mirror collectively and individually."

GG Jackson unimpressive in front of NBA scouts

Tennessee is one of the first teams South Carolina has faced with legitimate NBA talent on its roster, so multiple scouts were in attendance. Freshman GG Jackson, a first-round prospect in the 2023 NBA Draft, did not put on a good show. Usually the team's leading scorer, he finished with zero points on eight attempts. In fact, Jackson was benched at the start of the second half after going 0-of-5 in the first, replaced by freshman Zachary Davis in the starting lineup.

"It was a physical game, and for young guys in general that can be difficult but him particularly that's how guys are going to try to guard him and make life miserable," Paris said. "He just didn't respond well. His body language was not good, so I'm going to play the guys that are acting like they want to play really hard and try to win. That's what it was. He didn't respond well, so I went with Zach to open up the half."

Jackson failed to make a positive impact on any part of the stat sheet, logging a single rebound with four turnovers. By contrast, Tennessee's top freshman Julian Phillips shot 3-of-4 from the field in 25 minutes of playing time. Phillips, like Jackson, is a South Carolina native and was a top-20 prospect in the 2022 class.

"He's handled all this stuff so well so far, but today he did not," Paris said "Whether he put too much pressure on himself today specifically because of a matchup with an in-state guy that's also a high level recruit, and it's a top 10 team. Whatever those circumstances are, I told him at one point, 'Hey, here's what's happening.' Sometimes you just need someone to tell you the truth, and I told him ... You have to inspire your teammates. You've got to respond to stuff."

Meechie Johnson is Gamecocks' saving grace

At halftime, point guard Meechie Johnson was the only player with more than a single field goal and led South Carolina with 12 of its 21 points. He finished 6-of-16 shooting for 19 points, and added two rebounds, an assist and two steals. He also nearly outscored the rest of the team, which combined for 23 points.

Johnson has been effective on mid-range and 3-point shots all season, but he improved his production in the paint against the Vols. Eight of his 12 first-half points were in the paint, though he still finished with nine 3-point attempts.

"He was defaulting to shooting. That's what guys like to do because it's more comfortable. I wanted him to attack to the rim," Paris said. "It drew a non-shooting foul one time. He went to the rim and finished one time. It's just who he needs to grow into as a player."

The sophomore also logged just one assist in 32 minutes at point guard, and he took some responsibility for the team's scoring struggles despite his own solid showing.

"It's basketball and it happens. Maybe as a point guard I need to do a better job of getting my teammates in better spots and getting them where they're comfortable and can get some shots up," Johnson said. "I was just trying to stay aggressive and do whatever I can to help us win, but as the point guard, it's on me to get people in better spots."

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: South Carolina men's basketball suffers worst SEC loss vs. Tennessee