COLUMBIA, S.C. — Road sweet road.
Tobias Harris scored a career-high 25 points to push Tennessee past South Carolina on Thursday night.
Road is where the heart is.
Take any cliche about the comforts of home, flip the script, and you’ve got the story of this Tennessee men’s basketball team.
UT jumped out to a big lead Thursday night at South Carolina and held off the Gamecocks for a much-needed, 73-69 win at Colonial Life Arena.
“It’s weird, man. It definitely is. It’s really weird,” Tennessee senior guard Josh Bone said. “We’re winning on the road and losing at home.”
Added UT senior point guard Melvin Goins: “I guess it was a good thing to come on the road. ...Whatever works, man.”
The Volunteers (18-12, 8-7 SEC) won their fifth league road game of the season — compared to just three at home — but the Gamecocks (14-14, 5-10) rallied in the second half to make it much more interesting that UT wanted.
UT led 40-20 in the final minute of the first half, but South Carolina closed within single digits early in the second half and within 58-54 with less than eight minutes left.
Scotty Hopson continued his highlight-reel season against South Carolina with 24 points Thursday night in Columbia.
The loss of senior center Brian Williams — who stayed in Knoxville with an unspecified back injury — caught up with the Vols after the break, as South Carolina started mashing the ball inside the paint. The Gamecocks, who had 20 offensive rebounds to UT’s 19 defensive rebounds, scored on 16 of their first 18 possessions in the second half.
“The rebounding thing’s a real issue for us,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We obviously need Brian Williams back. ....It was worse (than expected). I mean, they got 20 offensive rebounds. Twenty offensive rebounds. It almost cost us the game.
“So no, I was very disappointed in our defensive rebounding.”
But Pearl and his assistants were proud of their players’ response.
Again, though, the Gamecocks answered, scoring eight consecutive points to pull within 69-66 on senior center Sam Muldrow’s 3-point play with 1:06 left.
“There was no letdown. It was elevated play by South Carolina,” Pearl said. “They drove the ball to the basket. They hurt us on the boards because they had an advantage in size.
“I didn’t see a letdown. I saw elevated play by South Carolina.”
Much-malgined Melvin Goins scored just seven points against the Gamecocks, but his tough jumper in the final minute was a big turning point.
Regardless, Pearl ultimately saw a response by Tennessee.
Goins pushed UT’s lead back to two possessions at 71-66 on a jumper with 32.7 seconds left, and the Vols got the ball back nine seconds later on a held ball. Goins and Harris then combined to go 2-for-4 from the free-throw line, rendering Gamecocks’ freshman point guard Bruce Ellington’s late 3 meaningless.
“They made a nice run,” said Harris, who scored a career-high 25 points. “I wouldn’t say it was about us not putting them away, because we responded really well. I thought as a team, we didn’t get too rattled out there like we normally do. That shows us coming together more and just growing up as a team. We definitely shouldn’t have let them get under the 10-point mark there, and they did, but as a team we responded pretty well.
“It was about time we closed out a game the way we should have. We did a good job of when they made a run, responding to it as a team, not getting rattled and just doing what we had to do — and that’s rebound the ball, get the ball in and just make a play.”
Harris was equal parts efficient and explosive, getting his 25 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line. He scored 16 points in the second half, too, when hot-starting Hopson started getting swarmed by South Carolina’s defense.
“Tobias was tremendous,” Pearl said. “Tobias finished around the basket. Tobias rebounded the ball in traffic. He was the only guy in there that had any kind of size, any kind of physical presence. He went to the line 14 times. That’s one of his best games.”
“As a freshman, he just ... he’s a winner.”
Harris, who also played some rotations at center in Williams’ stead, praised his teammates for consistently feeding him the ball — something they haven’t consistently done this season.
“I just got the ball in the right spots and attacked their big guys in the zone,” Harris said. “I got the ball and was able to make some tricky shots down there. I found ways to score. My teammates did a great job of getting the ball into the lane and making drive-draw-dish passes to me.”
Hopson was the first-half focal point, scoring 16 of his 24 points before the break on 6-of-8 shooting — including a 3-of-4 effort from long range and two highlight-reel slams.
“It was big, me getting off to a good start and setting the tone in this game — getting to the basket, finishing great plays,” Hopson said. “And as you could see, Tobias took over in the second half and scored some big buckets, and we both made big plays down the stretch. I think a lot of our players stepped up and contributed, though. Cam stepped up and had a better game.
“Everybody contributed to this win.”
The Vols must play better to beat Kentucky at home Sunday afternoon — especially if Williams is absent or limited — but Pearl was pleased enough with Thursday’s performance.
“I thought our guys hung in there,” the coach said. “I thought we showed some poise. I thought the team was resilient. I really did. I think we’ve shown some toughness on the road. We’ve shown some character in some difficult places. We were a team that came in here feeling like we had to get this win.
“We’re still alive. We’ve been written off a bunch of times, but we just continue to manage.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247