College Sports

Vols use big second half to down USC

Tennessee's Chris Lofton goes for a shot between South Carolina's Devon Downey and Mike Holmes during the first half.
Tennessee's Chris Lofton goes for a shot between South Carolina's Devon Downey and Mike Holmes during the first half.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Three years ago, the Tennessee men's basketball program was about where South Carolina is now -- a below-average SEC team with average fan interest in search of a new coach.

So much has changed, and it was on display Sunday -- especially in the second half.

Battling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and saying goodbye to its seniors, Tennessee blew past USC 89-56, outscoring the Gamecocks 51-19 in the second half.

At halftime, the Gamecocks trailed the nation's fourth-ranked team by one. With 1:30 remaining, they trailed by 38.

"How do you describe that? I don't know the words. Pretty bad," sophomore forward Evka Baniulis said.

"We just kind of collapsed on both ends," sophomore forward Dominique Archie said.

The Vols and the game served as another reminder of how far the USC has to go.

Three seasons ago, Tennessee finished fifth in the SEC East with a 14-17 record. It averaged crowds of 12,225 at Thompson-Boling Arena and replaced coach Buzz Peterson with Bruce Pearl.

This season, USC finished fifth in the division with a 13-17 record. It averaged 12,346 at home.

The Gamecocks will face LSU on Thursday in the first round of the SEC tournament in what could be the final game of Dave Odom's tenure at USC.

Under Pearl, the Volunteers have turned around. Sunday was the 10th consecutive sellout, and many fans stuck around after the game as the Volunteers cut down the nets, celebrating their SEC regular-season title.

Earlier, fans celebrated seniors such as Chris Lofton, who was recruited in part by then-assistant Al Daniel, who is now at USC assisting in the coaching search.

The story of the Gamecocks' season has been an inability to win close games. Tennessee was the exception.

Sunday's game was the most lopsided score of the SEC regular season. The Volunteers won by 25 in Columbia in January -- the most lopsided home loss for any SEC team this season.

And to think it was a one-point game at the break.

There was one Gamecock highlight -- point guard Devan Downey broke the school record for steals in a season. But Downey, the SEC's third-leading scorer, was held to two points.

Baniulis (three 3-pointers) and freshman Mike Holmes (11 points) picked up the slack in the first half. But the Gamecocks began the second half 2-for-18 from the field as Tennessee made a 26-6 run.

"We came out colder than the frigid Smoky Mountain air. They came out on fire," Odom said.

The rest of the game turned into, as Odom called it, "a dunk party." Tennessee's Tyler Smith threw down a fast-break dunk with slightly less than four minutes left to extend the lead to 30.

"A lot of it came against our other guys, but a lot of it didn't, too," Odom said. "I think we really got fatigued. In the first 12 minutes of the second half, I think we just flanked out."

Afterward, Archie was asked if Tennessee was the best team he had faced this season.

"I don't think they have the best personnel, but team-wise (yes)," he said.

Then Archie was asked who has the best talent.

"Talent-wise I'd have to go with us probably," he said. "We just can't find a way to put it together."