Vols improve to 6-0, look to lay low in Knoxville over Christmas

USA Today Sports photo by Randy Sartin / From left, Tennessee's John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey Jr., Josiah-Jordan James and Yves Pons huddle before Wednesday night's home game against USC Upstate tips off.

Tennessee made it a six-game sweep of its December nonconference men's basketball schedule Wednesday night, turning back the University of South Carolina Upstate 80-60 inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

All six wins by the No. 8 Volunteers have transpired in Knoxville, and Knoxville is where players will stay over Christmas. Tennessee hopes to combat another COVID-19 outbreak similar to the one that shut the program down before the season and resulted in cancellations of games against the well-known likes of Gonzaga, Notre Dame and Virginia Commonwealth.

The delayed start to Tennessee's season factored into Wednesday's contest being its fourth in nine days.

"It's important that we take care of our bodies and take care of our minds," redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. said after scoring a team-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. "It will be good to see our families but still stay safe. These days are very important for us."

Tennessee's downing of the Spartans transpired two days after the Vols football program announced it would be unable to play in the Liberty Bowl on New Year's Eve due to multiple positive tests for players and staff, including head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Just hours before the Vols tipped off, South Carolina revealed a coronavirus outbreak would prevent the Gamecocks from opening Southeastern Conference play next Tuesday night at Kentucky.

"We're keeping the guys here, and they're going to stay three days," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "The administration has done a great job in terms of helping get the parents here who can be here, and most of them will have a chance to be here. Obviously our foreign players and (sophomore guard) Davonte (Gaines of Buffalo, New York) won't be able to have their parents get here, but in talking to the parents, we're all concerned.

"We all know that we want to play basketball, and we don't want to do anything to create disruption with our team, so we came to the conclusion that it was best to stay here. We're going to hunker down and get some rest, and there is no doubt we need some rest."

photo USA Today Sports photo by Randy Sartin / USC Upstate guard Everette Hammond dribbles on the perimeter as Tennessee guard Victor Bailey Jr. defends during the first half of Wednesday's game in Knoxville. The Vols won 80-60 to remain undefeated through six games and are set to tip off their SEC schedule next week at Missouri.

Tennessee improved to 26-0 lifetime against current members of the Big South Conference but had a difficult time breaking free from the Spartans (0-8), who shot 9-of-18 from 3-point range.

USC Upstate, known formerly as USC Spartanburg, took its lone lead of the game on a Tommy Bruner 3-pointer at the 17:39 mark of the first half for a 7-6 advantage. An Everette Hammond 3-pointer had USC Upstate within 18-13 at the midway mark of the half, and the 34-point underdog trailed just 33-26 at intermission.

There was still a single-digit difference at the first media timeout of the second half, with the Vols leading 41-32, but Santiago Vescovi hit consecutive 3-point shots to finally give Tennessee a little bit more breathing room at 47-32. Tennessee didn't attain a 20-point lead until a Bailey layup with less than four minutes remaining made it 74-54.

"Our younger guys tonight struggled," Barnes said. "I think they struggled from a preparation standpoint. I don't think they've had to go through this many days of a grind both mentally and physically, and they just didn't have the steam they normally have. Upstate had a terrific game plan. They were going to shorten the game, and this was probably as good of a game that we could have to get us ready for conference play, because it was different from what we've played.

"As much as we want to play at a faster pace, the other team can have something to do with that, and I think there were times we played like a tired team."

Josiah-Jordan James added 11 points for the winners, while John Fulkerson tallied 10. James also had eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, one block and no turnovers before coming out of the game with a knee injury, but Barnes said the sophomore would be fine.

"I thought he played terrific tonight and was good in a lot of different areas," Barnes said.

Sophomore forward Olivier Nkamhoua of Finland had his best performance of the young season, coming off the bench to score nine points on 4-of-4 shooting from the floor and 1-of-1 at the free-throw line.

"There is a lot for me to learn, and it's important that I don't force myself to feel like I have to go out there and be perfect," Nkamhoua said. "I just need to play hard and get better every minute that I'm on the court. I can even get better on the bench watching my teammates play."

Said Barnes: "Olivier probably looked more relaxed overall tonight than at any point in time since he's been here."

The Vols are scheduled to open SEC play next Wednesday night at No. 14 Missouri (6-0).

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.