Shortly before Tuesday night's match-up with South Carolina, Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall's name was plastered on every major sports media outlet.
The cause? Possible past transgressions at Southern Miss, the school he left this past off-season in order to take the head coaching job in Knoxville. The Eagles announced a self-imposed postseason ban due to an ongoing NCAA investigation into alleged improprieties during Tyndall's time at the school.
Tyndall and his current team did not waver. They kept their head down and their W accomplished winning their first three SEC road games for the first time since 2009. The Volunteers escaped Colonial Life Arena with a 66-62 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Tennessee entered halftime with a five-point lead, 31-26. After getting down early, South Carolina rallied to tie the game at 24 before junior wing Armani Moore and the backcourt of Josh Richardson and Kevin Punter led a 7-2 surge to end the first half of play.
In the first half Laimonas Chatkevicius, coming off his first career SEC double-double, played only seven minutes. Those were the only minutes the big man played all night and he ended with zero points and one rebound. Sophomore guard Duane Notice played 19 of his 24 minutes in the first half and didn't score a point.
The negatives didn't end there for South Carolina but they eventually somewhat did. The Gamecocks got down by as much as 17 and nearly drowned in that deficit with about nine minutes to go. They scratched and clawed and down 62-47 with only four minutes left, all hope seemed lost.
Then a brief window of optimism opened after a careful second half of basketball. South Carolina didn't commit a turnover after the 14:23 mark in the second half and that care helped set the table for a raucous comeback.
In the final four minutes, the Gamecocks went on a 15-3 run to get within one possession of the Volunteers, 65-62. With just under 15 seconds to play, sophomore Justin McKie had a wide-open three-point opportunity to tie the game at 65. Cruelly, the tying shot went in-and-out and UT forward Derek Reese grabbed the rebound. Reese hit 1-of-2 free throws on the other end but the four-point, two possession lead was too large for South Carolina to overcome in the game's closing seconds.
There were aspects of the loss to lean on. South Carolina's defense caused 18 Tennessee turnovers with only 9 assists. Star Vol guard Josh Richardson had eight of those turnovers himself. Although, Tennessee shot 57.5 percent from the field, their best shooting performance of the season so far. Richardson and Punter combined to make 9-of-11 shots and the Vols as a team made 10-of-18 three-pointers. When a team is shooting like that, they're hard to beat, especially in today's college basketball where most teams struggle with outside shots.
Michael Carrera, who started the second half over Chatkevicius, put in a nice performance with eight points and a game-high nine rebounds. Demetrius Henry, who played with a clear mask on his face after suffering a broken nose in practice Monday, finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
Sindarius Thornwell scored a game-high 17 points and tallied 7 rebounds but only shot 4-of-14 from the field. As a team, the Gamecocks shot 34.4 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from three point range.
Offensively, the lack of execution was evident and it was furthered evidenced when Frank Martin conceded that he called a lot of plays but rarely were they run by his team. Martin also added that the leadership, focus, and energy on his team has changed since the Iowa State win. In regards to practice, Martin said his players work ethic and attention to deal wasn't the same it had been earlier this season.
South Carolina has now lost 15 consecutive games to Tennessee and if that wasn't embarrassing enough for you, Saturday might help.
The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats come to Colonial Life Arena at Noon on Saturday afternoon.
The Gamecocks have lost two in a row and four out of five while the likelihood of a 40-0 Kentucky team looks more and more realistic.
There's a lot to fix, Frank. Better get to work.