It was set up to be the night USC men’s basketball announced itself on the national stage. A home sellout crowd. A marquee opponent on ESPN.
Instead, Tennessee sent the message to the Gamecocks and their fans:
On its home floor, in front of a national television audience, USC was thrashed, 86-70.
Thus South Carolina came up short in its quest to win the SEC East Division champion. Tennessee clinched it, and USC will be the second seed in next week’s SEC tournament. The Gamecocks also have work to do before they lock up their first NCAA tournament bid in five years.
A win probably would have locked up a bid, but that was blocked by a Tennessee team that overmatched USC nearly everywhere on the floor.
“We weren’t really focused on the little things, and it really hurt us in the second half,” Gamecock forward Dominique Archie said.
Tennessee (19-10 overall, 10-5 in the SEC) ran away with a 25-7 run early in the second half. That came after a brief USC run to tie the score at 46.
South Carolina (20-8, 9-6) had hoped to play the way it had in its resounding win last week over Kentucky. But it was not to be on Thursday.
Tennessee killed USC inside, whether it was inside baskets or rebounding. It doubled USC on the boards, 44-22.
Archie bristled when asked if it was under-sized and overmatched against Tennessee’s front line.
“I don’t think those two things you just said had anything to do with it,” he said. “They’re the same height as us, about the same athleticism, and overmatched, I don’t think no man is going to sit here and say he’s better than me. Just don’t say that.”
Rebounds seemed to go to someone in orange. According to the stat sheet, Tennessee had 52 points in the paint compared to 30 for USC.
“We gave them way too many easy baskets, really from start to finish,” USC coach Darrin Horn said.
The margin on the boards would not have been as big an issue for South Carolina if it had hit more shots. But other than Fredrick, the team was struggling from beyond the arc, and the inside baskets were scarce.
The Gamecocks went cold in the second half, shooting 32 percent from the field — 20 points lower than the first 20 minutes.
USC was credited with two fast-break points.
“We didn’t make shots,” USC guard Zam Fredrick said. “We let what happened on the defensive end affect us.”
It looked different at the outset, when Fredrick, on senior night, nailed a 3-pointer on the opening possession, and two more in the next couple minutes.
The game was an offensive-fest in the early minutes. When Tennessee pulled ahead, USC made a late run to close the halftime lead to four.
“You could tell it was a championship game,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “Both teams were ready from the beginning.”
But only one team finished it that way. The other was left with one more regular-season game, Saturday at Georgia, that became more important.