KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- On an afternoon when making a basket seemed as difficult as climbing a mountain, it’s only fitting that a defensive play decided the game.
John Fulkerson drew a game-clinching charge from A.J. Lawson with 1.4 seconds left to preserve Tennessee’s 56-55 victory over South Carolina on Saturday. Fulkerson also had 15 points and 10 rebounds, but his defensive stand in the closing seconds was the play of the day.
“You had to make a game-winning play,” Fulkerson said. “Somebody had to stop the ball. I saw one of my teammates in the back and I figured everybody else was matched up to a man, so you just try to put yourself in a winning position to make a play.”
Tennessee (10-5, 2-1 SEC) led 56-53 and had possession in the final minute, but Lawson stole the ball from Santiago Vescovi and hit a pair of free throws with 36.5 seconds left to cut the lead to 56-55.
Jordan Bowden missed a 3-pointer on the Vols’ next possession, but the ball went out of bounds off South Carolina with 10.4 seconds left. Tennessee then missed a desperation attempt as the shot clock expired, giving South Carolina (8-7, 0-2) one last chance that ended when Lawson drove into the lane and charged into Fulkerson.
“That’s more a play where you give their guy credit rather than (put) our guy at fault, “ South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “Fulkerson ... made a heck of a play there, getting in front of him and taking that charge.”
Vescovi scored 13 points and Josiah-Jordan James added 10 for Tennessee. Maik Kostsar had 17 points and Jermaine Couisnard had 15 off the bench for South Carolina, which fell to 3-1 in true road games.
Tennessee found a way to win despite shooting just 25.9% (14 of 54) from the floor and 19.4% (6 of 31) from 3-point range. South Carolina shot just 32.8% (20 of 61) overall and 15.4% (2 of 13) from beyond the arc.
Vols coach Rick Barnes said after the game that “there’s not a better defensive coach in the country” than Martin.
The difference came at the foul line.
Tennessee shot 22 of 28 on free-throw attempts, including 14 of 16 in the second half. South Carolina went 7 of 15 in the second half and 13 of 22 for the game. The Gamecocks have made an SEC-low 61.4% of their free throws this season.
“We feel against South Carolina you’ve got to try to get to the line 25-plus times if you can,” Barnes said. “If not, they’re just going to manhandle you, if you don’t drive the ball hard and try to get fouls on them because they’re going to challenge every bounce, they’re going to reach.”
South Carolina: The Gamecocks didn’t get nearly enough from Lawson and Bolden, two of their three leading scorers. Lawson entered the day with a team-high 15.2 points per game, but he had just four points Saturday and missed all seven of his field-goal attempts. Bolden was averaging 9.6 points but had just two Saturday and shot 0 for 5. South Carolina had numerous opportunities to tie or take the lead in the closing minutes but couldn’t capitalize. The Gamecocks should get some encouragement from the performance of Couisnard, who matched a career high with his 16-point performance after missing one game with a back strain.
Tennessee: The Vols won despite committing 19 turnovers, but they still need Bowden to break out of his slump. He shot 1 of 17 overall and 1 of 12 from 3-point range Saturday. He has shot 9 of 54 overall and 5 of 33 from beyond the arc over his last four games.
“It was an ugly win,” James said, “but it was a win.”
Tennessee went nearly 10 ½ minutes without a basket during one stretch in the first half. Tennessee erased an eight-point deficit and took the lead for good by going on a 14-2 run in the second half when South Carolina went over six minutes without a basket.
South Carolina hosts No. 14 Kentucky on Wednesday.
Tennessee visits Georgia on Wednesday.
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