South Carolina followed perhaps its most impressive win of the year with as disappointing a loss as one can remember.
Just days after a trilling come-from-behind win on the road in Oxford, the Gamecocks fell to the Tennessee Volunteers, 78-69, on Saturday afternoon.
It was as sloppy a game as I have seen all season in the opening minutes. USC looked lethargic, jogging from end-to-end and at times, seeming genuinely uncoordinated. The energetic Chris Silva shined early on as his teammates tried to find themselves. The freshman scored six of South Carolina's first 10 points. Only eight field goals were made between the two teams in the first eight minutes of game play.
The Gamecocks missed 12 consecutive field goals during a stretch in the first half, allowing Tennessee to hold a 19-11 lead midway through the first period. USC was lucky UT was unable to increase their lead more as they were also struggling on the offensive end of the floor. South Carolina rolled up seven consecutive points then followed with a number of treys in the first half's final minutes to finally challenge for the lead. As the teams went into the locker room for halftime, the Vols held just a 29-28 lead.
Frank Martin's club didn't lead once in the first half, and they really never came close in the second. Tennessee made two three-pointers to open the second period of play, forcing a quick USC timeout. Things didn't get much better after the break. USC hit its own pair of three-pointers but the Volunteers followed with yet another pair of treys.
Overall, Tennessee would make its first seven three-point attempts in the second half. Those baskets created a double-digit lead for UT, one they would hold for much of the half.
Kevin Punter, the SEC's second-leading scorer, had only nine points in the first half. USC appeared to be on their way to holding Punter well under his season average. Unfortunately, he exploded in the second half. Punter scored 27 of his career-high 36 points after halftime. He tallied 14 of Tennessee's first 29 points in the second half.
South Carolina rallied twice in the second half. Just after midway through the period, back-to-back USC baskets trimmed UT's lead to five. Yet, the Vols countered with nine straight points. With time winding down, the Gamecocks rallied as they trimmed the deficit down to six with 2:24 to play. Punter connected on 10 consecutive free throws in the final two minutes to put the game away.
USC's two losses now have come after sloppy starts and heroic performances, one by a newly named starter and one by a consistently superior scorer.
After two road games, South Carolina faces a home stretch over the next week. The Gamecocks host Mississippi State on Tuesday night and then welcome the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday night as they hope to avenge their first loss of the season.