COLUMBIA - With his team in the midst of a crushing 26-4 run early in the second half of Wednesday's game against Tennessee, South Carolina's Carlos Powell wore a devious smile that suggested he had roped someone into a trap.
In so many ways, that's exactly what Powell and the Gamecocks did.
Ron Slay, the Volunteers' star forward, had just been whistled for a technical foul, and the Gamecocks were well on their way to a technical knockout in a 77-63 trouncing - their fourth straight win - in front of 13,411 fans at the Carolina Center.
Tennessee entered as the Southeastern Conference's hottest team, having won six straight games, and sporting the league's hottest player in Slay.
The Gamecocks (11-11, 4-7 SEC) chewed up the Vols (15-7, 7-4), leading by as many as 26 points in handing them their worst loss in conference play, and spit out Slay by harassing him whenever he caught the ball in the low post.
Slay's final numbers - 23 points and nine rebounds, both game highs - weren't an accurate indicator of how South Carolina throughly frazzled him. Sixteen of his points came after South Carolina went up by 21 with 14:35 remaining. Slay was 3 of 13 from the field to that point.
"One of our goals was to make him work as hard as he could for every single point," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom. "I think we did that."
Junior forward Rolando Howell was Slay's chief antagonist, shadowing him seemingly everywhere he went. Senior center Tony Kitchings, a former South Aiken star, also helped by providing solid weak-side defense.
The night's most telling sequence came with just less than 16 minutes remaining and the Gamecocks up by 14 points.
Slay took the ball inside and put up a shot that Kitchings blocked. Slay got the ball back and took another shot with the same result.
"Slay is one of those players who tries to get in your head," said Kitchings, who had three of the Gamecocks' nine blocks. "But if you go vice-versa and try to get in his head, he gets uncomfortable. ... That's part of being a good player. People are going to come after you."
Kitchings also managed to do what he wanted on the offensive end, scoring a team-high 21 points - one off his season high - on 8 of 13 shooting. Sophomore forward Carlos Powell snapped out of his shooting slump by scoring 17 points on a 7 of 15 clip from the field.
"Our team is playing better," said Odom, whose team improved to .500 for the first time since mid-January. "I don't think it's anything to be amazed at. I think it was in us all along."
Slay provided a fitting image after he missed a shot that led to a transition basket that put South Carolina up 64-40 with 9:20 remaining. Slay stood at the baseline on the other end and never moved, his white headband covering his left eye while Chuck Eidson dunked.
The Vols suffered their worst loss since an 83-66 defeat at Texas A&M on Dec. 4.
"Their front line is a lot like Kentucky's," Slay said after almost an hour in the locker room.
The Gamecocks built on a 36-28 halftime lead with a 16-1 run to put the game out of reach.
"At halftime, we talked about coming out of the locker room and really grabbing hold of the game," Odom said. "We came out and seized the game."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com