South Carolina was more than Tennessee's opponent in Wednesday night's SEC matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Gamecocks were pests. A roster full of them.
In a game in which Tennessee's lead was never safe, the Vols fought off numerous Gamecock rallies to hold off South Carolina 73-67 on Wednesday night in Knoxville.
"It was good to be back at home," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "I felt like our home-court advantage and our crowd helped us a little bit tonight."
Scotty Hopson led Tennessee (16-10, 6-5 SEC) with 23 points, with Cameron Tatum adding 13 points.
Malik Cooke led South Carolina (13-11, 4-7) with 22 points.
UT dominated in the paint, outscoring the Gamecocks 34-20 in the post. Brian Williams and Tobias Harris each flirted with double-doubles in the contest. Harris scored 10 points and grabbed 8 rebounds, while Williams added 10 points and 9 rebounds.
"I thought we did a good job," Pearl said. "We got the ball inside. Thirty-four points in the paint against a zone is good."
The first half of play was an exhibition in sloppy basketball. Hopson — who led the Vols in the first half with 12 points — knocked down a 3-pointer at the 14:23 mark to give the Vols an early 9-4 lead. South Carolina staged a run midway through the period to take the lead 15-14 on a Ramon Galloway layup with just under eight minutes until halftime.
"They played a lot of zone," Pearl said. "I thought we left a lot of shots out there. I thought we did a decent job of breaking pressure, yet 16 turnovers was too many."
But the Vols' defense played its part in limiting South Carolina's early shots. For the first half, UT held the Gamecocks to 25-percent shooting (8-33) but only hit 39 percent of its own shots. Neither team hit a field goal in the final two minutes of the first half.
Tennessee committed eight turnovers to South Carolina's six while outrebounding the Gamecocks 30 to 17 before intermission. UT tallied 16 turnovers on the night, while South Carolina turned the ball over 11 times.
"I thought defensively, particularly in the first half, we made it difficult for South Carolina," Pearl said. "We dominated the boards. They shot 25 percent. I thought our defense was terrific."
The Vols adjusted the offense at halftime and jumped out of the gate in the second period. A Brian Williams dunk and free throw opened up the first two UT possessions of the second half. Another Hopson 3-pointer at 18:20 swelled UT's lead to 39-27.
"I thought Scotty did a great job of attacking the rim in that zone," Pearl said. "He got to the basket a number of times."
But a resilient South Carolina team stayed within arm's reach for the duration of the second half. Bruce Ellington's layup capped a 7-0 run and pulled the Gamecocks within four at 39-35 with 17 minutes left to play, and a Galloway jumper at 13:20 kept the deficit to four points at 44-40.
Though South Carolina threatened, Tennessee refused to let the game slip through its fingers thanks largely to the second-half play of Hopson and Tatum. Tatum nailed a 3-pointer before turning a steal into a fast-break dunk at the 9:36 mark of the second half, pushing UT's lead to 56-46.
"I think we were more aggressive going at the rim and just trying to go at their defense," guard Melvin Goins said. "Attacking them where they're weak at."
Hopson brought the crowd to its feet with a dunk with 3:50 remaining to give the Vols a 64-63 lead.
"I think it elevates us," Hopson said of his dunks. "It elevates the guys on the team, and it elevates the crowd. When they're into it, and they're hype, we feed off their energy."
For the second half, Tennessee shot 52 percent from the field. Still, Pearl saw plenty of mistakes on offense.
"Offense, the turnovers are just sloppy play," Pearl said. "I think it had a lot to do with the margin. You turn it over 16 times, you're not going to beat the best teams on the schedule.
"I don't think we over-passed it. I think we were sloppy when we passed it."
Tennessee welcomes Georgia to Knoxville on Saturday for UT's next conference matchup. Tipoff is 1 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena. The game is this season's OUTLIVE contest for cancer awareness.