By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee found a unique formula for success.
Shoot a bunch of bricks, play rock-solid defense, then make several plays down the stretch.
That was enough to win a hard-fought yet ugly SEC game against South Carolina 56-55 Saturday afternoon before an impressive crowd of 19,603 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Junior power forward John Fulkerson downed a dunk, blocked a shot and took a charge to spark the victory. Fulkerson finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and was one of the few Vols who had a decent shooting percentage (5 for 7).
“If he can give us a double double every night,’’ Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of Fulkerson, “that’s what we need from him.’’
In the final 3:30 of the game, Fulkerson had a put-back dunk, then a block, then made as big as play as there was in the game – he draw a charge from a charging A.J. Lawson with 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
Barnes was asked if Fulkerson drawing a charge at that moment was a risky play.
“If he hadn’t,’’ Barnes said, “he (Lawson) would have probably dunked the ball.’’
South Carolina coach Frank Martin was impressed with Fulkerson’s moxy.
“Give their guy credit more than our guy getting fault,’’ Martin said.
Tennessee (10-5, 1-1 SEC) won despite horrific shooting. The Vols hit 25.9% from the field (14 of 54) and – after making 24 of 50 from 3-point range in the last two games – went 6 of 31 from beyond the arc (19.4%).
Senior Jordan Bowden, who has scored more points than any Vol this season, was a frigid 1 of 17 from the field, 1 of 12 on 3s. Many of his misses were open looks.
Bowden, who was 3 of 25 shooting against Wisconsin and LSU but bounced back against Missouri, seemed to be pressing again as he tries to carry a larger scoring burden with the absences of the injured Lamonte Turner.
“Bowden missed another point blank layup,’’ said an irritated Barnes.
“If he’s not playing well, we’re not going to leave him out there.’’
Tennessee led 56-52 with 1:20 left after a pair of Santiago Vescovi free throws.
South Carolina made three free throws sandwiched around Vescovi’s seventh turnover of the game to cut the margin to 56-55 with 36.5 seconds left.
Bowden missed a forced 3 with eight seconds left on the shot clock but the Gamecocks knocked the ball out of bounds with 10.4 seconds left.
UT’s inbounds passed sailed past the half-court line where Vescovi retrieved it and throw it toward UT’s basket.
South Carolina then set sail for UT’s basket but Lawson was called for the charge.
“That was a heady play by that young man,’’ Martin said of Vescovi, “to save the ball and throw it toward their basket.
“As he adjusts to how we defend (in the United States) I think he’ll be a real good player in this league.’’
Barnes liked the fact his team won despite a horrendous shooting outing. The two teams actually combined for more turnovers (38) than made field goals (34).
“I thought our guys played as hard as they could play,’’ Barnes said.
Barnes also thanked the boisterous crowd. Barnes said he told his team “if you want the fans to be with you, they appreciate playing hard.’’
Tennessee did play hard, just not very well.
But they did get a spark off the bench from freshman Drew Pember, a Knoxville product who hit a key 3 and scored five points with two rebounds in 10 minutes.
“I thought his presence out there was good,’’ Barnes said.
Arguably the difference in the game came at the foul line. Tennessee was 22 of 28, SC 13 of 22.
“Against South Carolina,’’ Barnes said, “you’ve got to try to get the line 25-plus times. If not, they’ll manhandle you.’’
Barnes did credit SC’s defense: “There’s not a better defensive team in the country.’’
But he also bemoaned the fact UT missed a bunch of open shots.
And he knows that will catch up with the Vols against other teams.
“We’ve got guys that can make shots,’’ Barnes said. “We’ve got to do it when the lights come on.’’