The South Carolina men's basketball team upset No. 5 Tennessee 63-59 on the road Tuesday, earning the Gamecocks its first top-five road win since 1997, thanks to its stout defensive work.
This win marked the second time the Gamecocks have defeated a top-10 opponent this season.
The first came last week when the Gamecocks upset the then No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats 79-62. The Gamecocks entered this game having lost 10 of the last 11 meetings between the two teams and have not won in Knoxville since 2017.
"What a good game," head coach Lamont Paris said. "I thought our guys just battled — there's some coach speak for you. But both teams played so hard. I mean just played so hard. And we made some plays when we needed to, got to the free throw line and made some big free throws down the stretch."
The first half was a back-and-forth affair, defined by the defensive presence of both teams. The Gamecocks held the Volunteers to 36% from the field and 18% from three. South Carolina also did not commit a single technical foul in the first half. The Volunteers played a similar game, causing the Gamecocks to shoot 37% from the field.
The first half had six lead changes, three for each team, and five ties before the half came to a close, with a 30-26 Gamecocks lead.
Tennessee got out to a good start in the second half, going on a 7-0 run early on to tie the game at 33. That momentum was quickly halted, though, as the Volunteers picked up four fouls in quick succession.
Defense continued to be key for the Gamecocks' success. Tennessee finished the game shooting 36.2% from the field and 23.8% from 3-point range on an inefficient 5-21 shooting. Tennessee entered the game averaging 79.5 points per game, but ended with 59 against the Gamecocks, 20 less than its season average and a season-low for the Volunteers.
The Gamecocks also struggled to convert on the offensive side of the ball, ending the game shooting 33.9% from the field. The 3-point shot was where the Gamecocks found its success, with 10 of the Gamecocks' 19 made field goals coming from behind the arc.
Volunteers fifth-year guard Dalton Knecht was the exception to Tennessee's offensive woes. Knecht scored 31 points, 13 of which came in the final three minutes of the game as Tennessee tried to mount a comeback.
The Gamecocks held a 9-point lead with three minutes remaining in the game when Knecht scored 7 straight points for the Volunteers to cut the lead to 3.
South Carolina answered this late charge with a clutch 3-pointer from graduate student guard Ta'Lon Cooper to increase the lead to 6 points with 41 seconds in the game, sealing the game for the Gamecocks.
Cooper was the Gamecock's most efficient offensive player. He scored 18 points, going six and 10 in shooting. Four of his six made field goals came from 3-point range.
Cooper has been key in the Gamecocks' two upset wins, as he has produced his two highest-scoring outings against top-10 teams. Cooper scored 20 points in the Gamecocks win over Kentucky last week.
Cooper was joined by graduate student forward B.J. Mack and junior guard Myles Stute. Mack scored 16 points and was a physical presence, earning four trips to the free throw line, going 7-8. Stute made his first appearance for the Gamecocks since the team's Jan. 16 game, where he picked up a shoulder injury.
Stute picked up where he left off, scoring 13 points, 9 of which from behind the arc. He also shot 4-4 from the free throw line, all of which came in the final moments of the game when under high pressure from the Tennessee fans.
"We try to simulate situations at the free throw line at practice, they don't come close to simulating that right there," Paris said. "He went up there, he was confident, he was not overconfident. That's when real doubt starts to creep in. The guy that is overconfident as he steps up there as if it's no sweat. I think he respected the moment. I think he went up there and went through his process, and he made the shots."
The Gamecocks, who were picked last in the preseason poll, just missed out in the recent top-25 rankings, despite its win over No. 6 Kentucky. Paris and the Gamecocks have used the doubt to fuel them to success.
"They got a lot of heart, it's a passionate group," Paris said. "You know, they want the spoils of whatever happens when you do what we've done, what we've done already. They want the spoils of that. But, they're fighters, they're tough, they want to win, badly, as a group."
The Gamecocks now move to 18-3 overall and 6-2 in SEC, with two top-10 wins under its belt. South Carolina will stay on the road to face the Georgia Bulldogs on Feb. 3 and tipoff is set for 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.