KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) South Carolina is off to its fastest start to Southeastern Conference competition in two decades.
The Gamecocks understand that will matter a whole lot more if they also have a quality finish.
Sindarius Thornwell scored 22 points Wednesday as South Carolina defeated Tennessee 70-60 for its third straight victory. South Carolina (13-3, 3-0 SEC) is off to just its second 3-0 start in Southeastern Conference competition since joining the league in 1991-92.
The Gamecocks also had a 3-0 start to league play in 1996-97 and went on to post a 15-1 SEC record and earn the conference’s regular-season title that year.
“It means a lot just because I remember times we were 0-3 starting SEC play,” Thornwell said. “It means a lot. We’ve kind of preached to the young guys how much it means and how much every game counts.”
South Carolina is chasing its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004. South Carolina won its first 15 overall games last year – including a 2-0 start in SEC play – but landed in the NIT after fading down the stretch.
“Every game’s going to be a grind,” Thornwell said. “It doesn’t get any easier from here, so we try to stay focused and prepare every game like it’s our last and try to keep winning.”
The Gamecocks also have earned back-to-back SEC road wins for the first time since 2011. In its last road game, South Carolina won 67-61 at Georgia on Jan. 4.
South Carolina’s defense and tenacity helped the Gamecocks withstand their offensive struggles on a night when each team committed 22 turnovers.
“Between turnovers and fouls and bad decisions, we just made this a prehistoric game today,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “It’s unbelievable, the inability to understand time, score and make better decisions. I can’t speak for (Tennessee). I’m speaking for our team. But it’s a win, and we did play hard.”
Tennessee (8-8, 1-3) shot just 32.7 percent and struggled to score one night after announcing that junior guard Detrick Mostella had been dismissed from the team. Mostella had been averaging 10.5 points per game to rank second on the team.
The difference in the game came from 3-point range, where South Carolina shot 7 of 13 while Tennessee was just 1 of 11. That disparity led to Tennessee’s third straight loss.
“I just think we’ve got too much character with this group. These guys, they’re not going to quit playing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “They realize there’s a long way to go, and we’re working toward being a better team.”
South Carolina’s Hassani Gravett, who entered the night averaging just 4.2 points per game, scored 12 points. Duane Notice added 11.
Grant Williams scored 15 points and Robert Hubbs III and Lamonte Turner had 12 each for Tennessee.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks won by relying on the defense that has carried them all season. South Carolina is allowing just 60 points per game. Opponents are shooting 36.8 percent overall and 27.8 percent from 3-poiont range against the Gamecocks. South Carolina entered the night ranked fifth among all Division I teams in field-goal percentage defense, eighth in 3-point percentage defense and ninth in scoring defense.
Tennessee: The Vols clearly missed Mostella, who had a team-high 26 3-poiint baskets this season while providing instant offense off the bench. Tennessee made a single basket during one stretch of nearly 13 1/2 minutes in the first half. The Vols finished the first half with 14 turnovers and only six baskets.
South Carolina has gone 10-0 in games Thornwell has played. The Gamecocks went 3-3 when Thornwell was serving a suspension last month.
STREAK (BARELY) STAYS ALIVE
Tennessee extended its string of consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer to 183 only after Turner made a shot that bounced high off the rim and fell through with 1:51 remaining. The last time Tennessee failed to make a single 3-pointer was in a 77-67 loss to Duke on Nov. 21, 2011.
South Carolina hosts Mississippi on Saturday.
Tennessee is at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
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