KNOXVILLE — For a young, inexperienced team trying to find its way, the last week has been good for the Tennessee men's basketball Volunteers.
Tuesday night, it was a 3-point barrage, with Tennessee making 11 of them in a key road win at Missouri. Saturday afternoon at home against South Carolina, though, the shots didn't fall; the Vols were just 26% from the field and 19% from 3-point range. They also turned the ball over 19 times and the team's lone senior, Jordan Bowden was 1-for-17 from the field, becoming the first player in the Southeastern Conference over the last 25 seasons to take at least 17 shots and make one or none, according to the ESPN Stats and Information department.
And still, the Vols won — 56-55.
"Obviously, we're excited we won the game, but win or lose I can only say the same thing," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "It was a hard-fought game. I thought our guys played as hard as they could play against a team, for a young group of guys that knew what South Carolina could do to you, in terms of pressuring you the way they do. I thought they were going after the younger guys and seeing if they could handle the pressure.
"We didn't do a very good job, but our guys played really, really hard. I can't thank our fans enough. We've got the best in the country, and we're going to need them all year. We told our team that if you want our fans to be with you, they appreciate hard work. Our guys really did try to play hard.
"At the end, there's a lot of things that we didn't do right, but the effort was one of the first steps we had to get. Now we know we've got to get better at taking care of the basketball. I think both teams played their hearts out."
And Saturday's recipe for success was a new one for the Vols. Barnes noted that the goal against South Carolina was to "try and get to the line 25-plus times if you can." Tennessee got there for 28 attempts, making 22 for a 79% rate.
The Vols used some unexpected contributions from the bench — particularly from freshman Drew Pember, who played 10 minutes — the most since he logged 13 against Memphis on Dec. 14 — and scored five points with a pair of rebounds.
But mainly, they did it with hustle and defense, meaning junior John Fulkerson played a major role in the win. It was the charge he took with 1.4 seconds to play on A.J. Lawson that sealed the deal, added to his 15 points and 10 rebounds on a day when the team's outside shots weren't falling.
While Tennessee was struggling down the stretch, missing nine of its final 10 shots and not making a field goal in the final 3:13, it also was shutting down the Gamecocks (8-7, 0-2), who didn't make a shot in the final 2:31.
It was Fulkerson's second career double-double; his first came on Nov. 22, 2016, when he had 12 points and 10 rebounds in an overtime loss to Oregon.
"Coach (Kim) English told us about a quote, that defense and rebounding travel well in a suitcase," Pember said. "You might not shoot the ball well, and this afternoon we shot horrible. It was definitely a big defensive game for us.
"No, we didn't play perfect on the defensive end, but we made some big strides which helped us win this game."
And that's going to be the key for this team, this year. From a foundation standpoint, every positive stride Tennessee can take over the next 17-plus games can only serve as a benefit going forward.
A team that won 31 games while averaging 82 points per game last season has hit that total only once this year — an 82-63 win over Murray State on Nov. 12 — and that team then looks nothing like this team now. Gone is Lamonte Turner from that version; in is freshman Santiago Vescovi, who continues to provide sparks but is extremely turnover-prone, committing six more miscues Saturday and giving him 20 in three games.
That, coupled with Bowden's overall misses as well as the team's, made Saturday a very losable game, especially for a young, inexperienced team. Yet the Vols persevered and won, providing some two-game momentum going into Wednesday's game at Georgia.
"I think it is," Fulkerson said. "I think it's a lesson to us older guys, too. Even though shots weren't falling, we could really lock in on defense. If we can't score, we can't let them score. That's made us need to play both sides of the ball, if that makes sense — knowing that sometimes shots aren't going to fall, so we can really lock in on defense."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.