Tennessee survives South Carolina's late rally for 66-62 win
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Tennessee is off to an even better start in the Southeastern Conference than Kevin Punter thought.
A few more victories like this and everyone will be attention to the Vols in the SEC.
Punter and Josh Richardson had 13 points each as the Vols hung on to win their 15th straight over South Carolina, 66-62, on Tuesday night.
''We were two and one, now we're three and one,'' Punter said before he was corrected on his team's 4-1 SEC start. ''Oh, we're four and one. I'll tell you something, we can't be complacent. Every game we come into, we've got to play with a chip on our shoulder.''
So far, that style has lifted Tennessee into solo second place in the SEC behind undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky.
The Vols held a 56-39 lead with 8:40 to go and appeared ready to cruise to victory. Instead, the Gamecocks rallied down the stretch with a 23-8 run that sliced Tennessee's big lead to 64-62. But Richardson and Derek Reese made crucial foul shots in the final 30 seconds for the win.
''I thought that our team was fortunate to make about one more play than they did and get out of the gym alive,'' Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said.
South Carolina had a chance to tie, trailing 65-62, but Justin McKie's 3-pointer rolled around the rim and out with 14 seconds left. Reese followed with his free throw to close out the victory.
Tennessee won its third-straight SEC road game to start a season for the first time since 2009.
Sindarius Thornwell had 17 points for South Carolina, which has not beaten Tennessee since 2007.
The Vols hit 10 3-pointers, finishing with a season's best shooting percentage of 57.5 (23 of 40).
Punter and Richardson combined to go 9 of 11 from the field with each hitting two 3-pointers.
It almost didn't matter with South Carolina's late rally, which took flight when McKie and Thornwell hit consecutive 3-pointers to shrink the double-digit lead to 62-55. Thornwell was fouled on a 3 and made all the foul shots to draw closer before Michael Carrera made two foul shots and then a basket to make it 64-62 with 32.9 seconds remaining.
The Gamecocks had high hopes entering the SEC, but have started 1-4 or worse in league play each of coach Frank Martin's three seasons.
''Right now, we're a bunch of guys driving our own cars in different lanes, and unless we try and get back in that van we were all in together, we're not going to beat the teams we have to play,'' Martin said.
Tennessee: When the Vols beat Missouri 59-51, it was the Tigers lowest-ever point total in the 10-year history of Mizzou Arena.
South Carolina: Gamecocks junior center Laimonas Chatkevicius had his first-ever double-double in an SEC game with 15 points and 11 rebounds in a loss at Auburn last Saturday. Chatkevicius, South Carolina's tallest player at 6-foot-11, had zero points and one rebound against the Vols.
Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said he could not talk much about the decision by Southern Miss leaders to enact a postseason ban for the basketball team. The school is undergoing an NCAA inquiry for potential violations in Tyndall's two seasons there. Tyndall said he's cooperated fully and will do so again if necessary.
Two South Carolina starters barely played in the second half. Center Laimonas Chatkevicius played just seven minutes, all in the opening half. Guard Duane Notice got in for 19 minutes, only five in the second half. When asked about Chatkevicius' benching South Carolina coach Frank Martin said ''It's hard to have a conversation with him when he's in the game.''
Tennessee returns home to play Texas A&M on Saturday.
South Carolina hosts No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday.