#4 VOLS CLINCH OUTRIGHT SEC TITLE WITH 66-59 VICTORY AT #17/16 SOUTH CAROLINA
Courtesy / UT Athletics

#4 VOLS CLINCH OUTRIGHT SEC TITLE WITH 66-59 VICTORY AT #17/16 SOUTH CAROLINA

Game Recap: Men’s Basketball | March 06, 2024

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team defeated No. 17/16 South Carolina, 66-59, on its home court Saturday night to lock up the 11th SEC regular season championship in program history, including its sixth outright.

Fifth-year guard Dalton Knecht led all scorers with 26 points for fourth-ranked Tennessee (24-6, 14-3 SEC), which never trailed at a sold-out Colonial Life Arena on the way to, for the first time ever, defeating its third straight AP top-25 foe in as many outings, including its second in a row on the road, also a program first.

The triumph also marked the 100th in SEC play for ninth-year head coach Rick Barnes, who has guided the Volunteers to an SEC regular season crown in two of the last seven seasons, tied for the most of any team in that time.

“My first thoughts are I thank the good Lord for giving me the opportunity to be around a group of guys like this. I truly have enjoyed being with them every day,” Barnes said. “On days when I was probably a little bit upset with them, I realized there is something special about them. Because I felt they had my same feeling, they were disappointed when I was disappointed, they knew that we needed to get better.

“When you have a group of guys, especially Santi [Vescovi] and Josiah [James], who were with us trying to get this thing back on track five years ago, [it makes it special]. Going through the COVID, going through everything, just so much respect for them,” Barnes continued. “Then, Z [Zakai Zeigler] coming in, Jahmai [Mashack] and Jonas [Aidoo], all that group, [they played a big role]. It’s not easy to win a championship, it’s not. For them to do it [is great] and it was something they set their sights on. For them to come and do it the way we had to do it on the road with this finishing schedule, I think it speaks volumes about them.”

COLUMBIA, SC - March 06, 2024 - mb during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

The two sides played nearly even basketball through 16-plus minutes, but Knecht then buried three straight 3-pointers in just 2:20, stretching the margin from two to a then-game-best 11, 33-22, with 1:09 left in the frame.

South Carolina (24-6, 12-5 SEC) scored with 13 seconds on the timer to get it back to single digits, but junior guard Zakai Zeigler hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to make it an 11-point affair, 35-24, at the intermission.

Tennessee shot 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes, including Knecht hitting his first four attempts, while the Gamecocks went 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) beyond the arc.

Knecht scored the opening points of the second half—that made it an extended 18-5 run after the two sides split the first 38 points—to give the Volunteers a 13-point edge, 37-24, with 17:57 to go. South Carolina countered with a 10-3 burst in 4:47, trimming its deficit to six, 40-34, with 12:50 remaining.

Tennessee, though, answered right back. It scored eight straight points—half on a four-point play by Knecht, his and the team’s second of the year—to go up by a game-best 14 points, 48-34, with 9:40 to play.

The lead did not shrink below eight until the final three minutes. The home team went on a 9-2 spurt in just 81 seconds to get it down to three, 59-56, with 1:14 on the clock. However, Tennessee tallied five of the next six points, regaining a seven-point edge, 64-57, with 14.9 seconds to go on a pair of free throws by Zeigler.

The teams exchanged the final four points, with the last two coming at the line from Charleston, S.C., native Josiah-Jordan James, a fifth-year guard playing the final road game of his career.

Knecht, who scored 25-plus for the ninth time in the last 16 games and the 10th time this season, finished 5-of-11 on 3-pointers and 3-of-3 at the line.

Junior forward Jonas Aidoo finished just shy of a double-double, tallying 14 points and a team-best nine rebounds. Zeigler scored 13 points and paced all players with seven assists in the championship-clinching win.

COLUMBIA, SC - March 06, 2024 - mb during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

“There are so many people in our program [who help us],” Barnes said. “So blessed to have an opportunity to work at Tennessee with Randy Boyd, Donde Plowman, certainly Danny White [and what he] has done, Ryan Alpert, our administrator, Mary-Carter [Eggert], Garrett [Medenwald], Chad [Newman]. There are so many people that have played a huge part of this. That’s what I’m thankful for, I really am. I love the fact we’ve accomplished what we set out to do in the regular season, but I’m just proud for everybody associated with our University and our basketball program.”

Junior guard Meechie Johnson paced South Carolina with 18 points, but Tennessee held him without a made 3-pointer on seven attempts. Freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles logged 11 points and a game-best 11 rebounds, along with a game-high three blocks. Graduate student guard Ta’Lon Cooper had 11 points and eight boards.

Both teams shot under 39 percent from the floor, but Tennessee went 7-of-20 (35.0 percent) from deep and conceded just an 8-of-29 (27.6 percent) mark at the other end. The victors also shot 19-of-22 (86.4 percent) from the stripe compared to a 5-of-10 (50.0 percent) ledger for South Carolina.

The Volunteers wrap up the regular season Saturday at 4 p.m. when they host No. 15/13 Kentucky, their fourth straight top-20 opponent, at Food City Center, live on CBS. The team’s four seniors will be honored in a pregame ceremony.

To keep up with the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team on social media, follow @Vol_Hoops on Instagram and X/Twitter, as well as /tennesseebasketball on Facebook.  

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS POSTGAME NOTES
• Barnes now owns 803 victories in his career, two behind Rick Byrd for No. 14 on the all-time wins list (min. 10 years at a Division I school).
• Barnes improved to 100-60 (.625) in SEC play during his nine-year tenure at Tennessee, becoming the 24th coach in league history to register triple-digit conference victories.
• Barnes is the third coach to win 100 SEC games at Tennessee, joining Ray Mears (182 from 1963-77) and Don DeVoe (107 from 1979-89), while John Mauer also reached that mark including his time at Florida.
• The Volunteers improved to 11-2 in their last 13 matchups with South Carolina, including 6-1 over the past seven meetings.
• Wednesday marked just the second AP top-25 matchup between the two schools, with No. 14 Tennessee defeating No. 16 South Carolina, 55-45, on Dec. 2, 1972, in Knoxville, Tenn., in the lone prior occurrence.
• Tennessee now owns 11 SEC regular season championships in program history: 1935-36, 1940-41, 1942-43, 1966-67, 1971-72 (shared), 1976-77 (shared), 1981-82 (shared), 1999-2000 (shared four ways), 2007-08, 2017-18 (shared) and 2023-24.
• The Volunteers now own six outright regular season SEC titles: 1935-36, 1940-41, 1942-43, 1966-67, 2007-08 and 2023-24.
• This is the 13th season in which Tennessee has won at least one SEC title, as it also claimed the SEC Tournament crown after two years in which it did not win the regular season: 1978-79 and 2021-22.
• The Volunteers have now earned at least one of the SEC crowns—regular season or tournament—in three of the last seven seasons (2017-18, 2021-22 and 2023-24), all under Barnes, after notching two in the prior 35 campaigns (1982-2017).
• Over the last seven seasons (2017-24), the only teams with two SEC regular season titles and/or three-plus SEC championships of any kind are Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee.
• As an institution, the University of Tennessee now owns 203 SEC team championships and 207 total (four are in other leagues).
• This is the first time in Tennessee history it has knocked off an AP top-25 foe on the road in back-to-back outings.
• This is the first time in program history Tennessee has defeated an AP top-25 opponent in three consecutive games and, in this case, all were in the top 17.
• In addition, this is just the seventh time in program history—two are in 2023-24—Tennessee has played three straight AP top-25 opponents in a single season, while it also happened once in a multi-season stretch.
• This is also only the sixth time—two are in 2023-24—the Volunteers have faced three consecutive AP top-20 foes in a single campaign, while it also happened once in a multi-season stretch.
• Tennessee improved to 27-20 (.574) in AP top-25 matchups under Barnes, including 21-13 (.618) with both teams in the top 20.
• With a 3-0 ledger this season, the Volunteers are now 4-3 (.571) in AP top-20 road matchups over the last four seasons (2020-24).
• The Volunteers moved to 29-27 (.518) versus AP top-20 opponents during Barnes’ nine-year tenure.
• Over its last 19 games against AP top-20 foes, going back to Jan. 22, 2022, versus Arizona, Tennessee now possesses a 15-4 (.789) record.
• In the last four seasons (2020-24), Tennessee is now 21-14 (.600) against AP top-25 foes, including 19-9 (.760) versus AP top-20 foes, with both win totals leading all SEC programs.
• The opening personal foul of the game came with 13:00 on the first-half clock and the initial defensive foul did not come until 23 seconds after that.
• The first half featured just four total free throws, with Tennessee making all four its shots from the line and South Carolina attempting none.
• James became the 10th player in Tennessee history to reach 800 rebounds, as he now has 803, moving him from No. 10 to ninth on the program’s all-time leaderboard by passing Isiah Victor (1997-2001).
• James also entered the top 35 on the program’s all-time scoring list, as he upped his total to 1,230 to surpass A.W. Davis (1962-65).
• Knecht, on a 3-pointer with 16:02 on the first-half clock, became the 15th Volunteer—24th occurrence—to score 600 points in a season, including the first since Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield both did so in 2018-19.
• Knecht, in just 30 games, already ranks co-No. 19 on the program’s single-season scoring list, including fourth over the last 30 seasons (1994-2024), with 622 points.
• Over last 30 seasons (1994-2024), Knecht is one of six Tennessee players to amass 600 points in a season, joining Admiral Schofield (2018-19), Grant Williams (2018-19), Jordan McRae (2013-14), Chris Lofton (2006-07) and Ron Slay (2002-03).
• Knecht is the third SEC player in the last 15 years (2009-24) to record 13-plus points in at least 16 straight league games in a single season, joining Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves (2023-24) and Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins (2011-12).
• Knecht is the fourth SEC player in the last 15 seasons (2009-24) to tally 13-plus points in at least 11 consecutive road games in a single campaign, alongside LSU’s Antonio Blakeney (2016-17), Kentucky’s Jamal Murray (2015-16) and Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins (2011-12).
• Knecht now has 18 25-point showings in his three-year Division I career, 10 of which have come this season, with nine in the last 16 games.
• Entering Wednesday, just 13 Division I player had double-digit 25-point performances in 2023-24, with Purdue’s Zach Edey the only one in a Power Six league.
• Knecht now owns 34 20-point performances as a Division I player, including 15 in his lone campaign as a Volunteer.
• In 11 of his 30 outings at Tennessee, Knecht has scored double-digit points in both halves, including in nine of the past 15 contests.

COLUMBIA, SC - March 06, 2024 - mb during the game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Tennessee Volunteers at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

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