COLUMBIA, S.C.—Tobias Harris emerged from the Tennessee locker room in the bowels of Colonial Life Arena wearing a gray sweatshirt he got from his selection to last year’s McDonald’s High School All-American Game.
“I thought it was a pretty good game for me,” the steady freshman said.
The Volunteers needed it, too.
Harris’ career-high 25 points helped UT overcome the absence of their biggest player in a 73-69 Southeastern Conference win Thursday night at South Carolina.
“Tremendous,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “Tobias finished around the basket. Tobias rebounded the ball in traffic. He was the only guy in there that had any kind of size — any kind of physical presence. That’s one of his best games. I played him at a lot of center. And as a freshman he’s a winner.”
The win kept alive UT’s chances for a first-round bye in next week’s SEC tournament and improved its hopes for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
With 6-foot-10 senior center Brian Williams back in Knoxville dealing with a sore back, Harris took on the role as UT’s tallest player at 6-8 against the long, athletic Gamecocks. He made seven of nine field-goal tries and converted 11 of his 14 free throws.
Scotty Hopson added 24 points for UT (18-12, 8-7), which won despite allowing South Carolina (14-14, 5-10) to dominate the glass in cutting a 20-point first-half deficit to four. The Gamecocks, who lead the league in offensive rebounding, had more offensive rebounds (20) than UT had defensive boards (19). South Carolina scored 22 second-chance points and outscored the Vols 34-30 in the paint.
“I was really concerned without Brian because of ... the fact that we need him on the boards,” Pearl said. “The areas that South Carolina could have beaten us in, they did, and yet it wasn’t enough to overcome a couple of tremendous performances by a couple of our players.
“[UT’s rebounding] was worse. Almost cost us the game, so I was very disappointed in our defensive rebounding. Rebounding is a real issue for us. We obviously need Brian to get back.”
Hopson and Harris combined for 22 of UT’s first 30 points as the Vols used a 23-6 run to blow the first half open. South Carolina opened the second half with an 11-4 surge, and Ramon Galloway’s off-balance, one-handed jumper made it 58-54 with about eight minutes left.
“We sent a message [early] that we came here because we knew we had business to take care of,” Pearl said. “I didn’t see a letdown [in the second half]. I thought it was elevated play by South Carolina.”
UT answered with an 11-4 run to take a 69-58 lead before the Gamecocks, who were led by 6-9 Sam Muldrow’s 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, scored eight in a row. With Tennessee up three with under a minute left, Melvin Goins drained a jumper with the shot clock running down and 32.7 seconds left, and Cameron Tatum forced a jump ball that gave possession back to UT to seal it.
“It was about time we closed out a game the way we should’ve, and I thought we did a good job of that,” Harris said. “I thought as a team we didn’t get too rattled out there like we normally [do], and that shows us coming together more and growing up as a team.”
Tatum made five of his six free throws in the second half, as the Vols went 25-of-34 (73 percent) at the stripe after entering the game at 67 percent.
“Tobias took over in the second half,” Hopson said. “He had a great second half, scored some big buckets, and we each made plays down the stretch. Everybody contributed this game.”
“Being able to battle,” Goins said of Harris, “on both ends having to play those brutal minutes at the 5 getting beat up down there and still being able to perform like he did, it was big-time.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...