COLUMBIA — Jarnell Stokes had the flashy, double-double and Jordan McRae hit the timely 3-pointer down the stretch. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin knows, though, the Volunteers wouldn’t have made it past South Carolina without Trae Golden.
Golden was a starter when the season began, but has been coming off the bench for most of the Southeastern Conference season. He didn’t play the past two games because of injuries, yet steadied the Vols throughout their 66-61 victory over the Gamecocks on Sunday.
“I don’t think we get out of here alive without Trae Golden,” Martin said.
The coach might be right. Stokes had 20 points and 10 rebounds for his ninth double figure points-rebounds game this season and seventh in SEC play. It was Golden’s leadership and control down the stretch that pushed the Vols (12-10, 4-6) to their 12th consecutive victory over the Gamecocks.
Golden hit 4 of 8 shots and converted 8 of 10 foul shots, six of those in the second half during Tennessee’s rally.
McRae came in as Tennessee’s top scorer at 14 points a game, yet shot just 1 of 7 for seven points. His lone field goal, though, was a big one – a 3-pointer from the right corner that put the Vols ahead for good, 58-57, with 3:17 remaining. Skylar McBee followed with a 3 and Golden hit two foul shots as Tennessee opened a 63-58 lead the Gamecocks (12-11, 2-8) could not overcome.
Michael Carrera had 18 points and 11 rebounds to lead South Carolina, which lost its fourth straight game.
Golden added 16 points for Tennessee.
This game was tight for all but the final three minutes, featuring 12 ties and 16 lead changes until McRae’s 3 turned things Tennessee’s way. Bruce Ellington missed a 3-pointer on South Carolina’s next possession after the Vols moved in front, leading to McBee’s second 3. Brian Richardson could not answer for the Gamecocks on a long-range basket and Tennessee took control.
Stokes finished 6 of 9 from the field and made eight of his 13 foul shots. He also added four blocks for the Vols.
“When he’s playing with the level of strength he has, it really takes two guys to keep him off the glass,” Tennessee’s Martin said.
Both these teams were looking to end losing streaks. Tennessee had lost its past two games to Arkansas and Georgia while the Gamecocks had dropped their last three games – all by sizeable margins – since defeating Arkansas at home on Jan. 26.
Tennessee hadn’t lost to South Carolina since falling 81-64 on Feb. 17, 2007, including five straight at the Colonial Life Arena.
The difference early on in this game was Stokes, the league’s second-leading rebounder coming in who did just about anything he wanted against South Carolina’s less experienced front line.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-8 sophomore made 5 of 8 shots in the opening half. His putback with 3:52 left in the period capped the Vols’ 12-3 run and put them ahead 28-21.
South Carolina responded with an 8-2 charge, led by Eric Smith’s jumper and 3-pointer. That’s when Stokes broke free again with a pair of close-in shots to put Tennessee ahead 32-29 at the break.
Gamecocks freshman Carrera had nine points on 3-of-4 shooting to power South Carolina.
First-year coach Frank Martin juggled his lineup again trying to find some offensive punch on a team that has lost by 39 points to Florida, 11 points to Georgia and 22 points to Kentucky in its last three outings. Martin started Damien Leonard for the first time this season, but the sophomore made just one of his four shots in the first half.
Brenton Williams, one of three Gamecocks, averaging 10 points a game, did not play against the Vols. South Carolina’s Martin was asked why Williams and 6-10 forward Laimonas Chatkevicius, both part of the regular rotation, didn’t play. “You think I should’ve played them?” he said.
Martin was not pleased with his team’s offense, which ended under 40 percent from the field (20 of 51) for the fourth straight game. “I had junior varsity teams that run better offense than we run,” he said.