KNOXVILLE. Tenn. (AP) — Ready or not, here it comes.
A preseason that was paused for a couple weeks. No exhibitions. A marquee game against Gonzaga scrapped. An early schedule haphazardly cobbled together. Then, a stretch of four games in eight days.
The Southeastern Conference season is finally next for No. 8 Tennessee. The Volunteers (6-0) battled Wednesday in an 80-60 victory over USC Upstate.
Victor Bailey scored 18 points to lead the victory. It wasn’t until a 12-2 run midway through the second half that the Volunteers finally pulled away, Bailey had four points in that burst. Josiah-Jordan James added 11 points and eight rebounds. John Fulkerson scored 10.
“Upstate had a terrific game plan,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “They shortened the game. It was better than beating someone by 30 or 40 points (like the Vols’ two previous wins). They played at a different pace. They played with great poise.”
The Spartans (0-8) were led by Tommy Brunner with 18 points. Everette Hammond added 13 points.
“Tonight’s message to our guys was, ‘Let’s just get Upstate basketball better,'” said Spartans coach Dave Dickerson. “I think we did.”
Tennessee’s 33-26 halftime lead was a struggle. Possessions were long and points were hard to come by. The Vols shot 41% (12 of 29) from the field and 2 of 10 from 3-point. USC Upstate played a hounding defense, but managed just 39% shooting (11 of 28).
A steal and rebound basket by Nevin Zink pulled the Spartans within five, 29-24, with 2 minutes left in the half.
Bailey scored nine to lead Tennessee. Fulkerson added six points.
Brunner was USC Upstate’s top producer with nine points. Zink and Bryson Mozone each had six points.
“We need someone like Josiah,” said Bailey. “His impact is needed in so many places. He brings the energy.”
USC Upstate: Winless through eight games, the Spartans are in search of an identity as the bulk of their Big South Conference season is looming.
Tennessee: There’s always a challenge about whether a team is ready for the meat of its schedule. This year, given the unique circumstances caused by the pandemic, the concern is even greater. Did blowout victories over Tennessee Tech and St. Joseph’s and a struggle against USC Upstate do enough to prepare the Vols for the Southeastern Conference grind ahead?
USC Upstate: The Spartans took a break from Big South Conference play to take on Tennessee. They will return to league action next Wednesday at High Point.
Tennessee: The Vols will get their first taste of SEC competition Wednesday when travel to Missouri.