Knecht leads No. 4 Tennessee to outright SEC crown with 66-59 win at No. 17 South Carolina

Thu, Mar 7, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Knecht leads No. 4 Tennessee to outright SEC crown with 66-59 win at No. 17 South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Dalton Knecht happily wore his orange SEC Champs hat. He knows, however, that Tennessee's goals don't end with its first Southeastern Conference regular-season title in six years.

Knecht had 26 points, including a four-point play, as the fourth-ranked Volunteers withstood a late run by No. 17 South Carolina for a 66-59 victory Wednesday night.

The Gamecocks (24-6, 12-5 SEC) cut a 14-point second-half deficit to 59-56 on Meechie Johnson's inside shot with 1:13 to go. But the Vols (24-6, 14-3) hit seven foul shots the rest of the way to hold on and open a two-game cushion in the SEC with one to play.

It was satisfying performance for Knecht.

"It feels great," he said of the team's championship. "We got the job done, but at the same time, the job's not done. We've got the SEC Tournament and the big one" in the NCAAs.

With Knecht hitting shots the way he did against South Carolina, Tennessee will be a hard out going forward.

"One thing about Dalton, he's not afraid," Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said. "The guys feed off him. He gives them confidence."

Knecht had plenty of confidence-boosting moments in this one. With the Gamecocks trailing 24-22 right before halftime, Knecht hit three 3-pointers over four possessions as the Vols used an 11-2 burst to open a double-digit lead.

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After the Gamecocks rallied back within six, Knecht hit his fifth 3, got fouled and made the free throw.

"That was my first in a long time," he said, smiling. "Connect four."

Tennessee shared the regular-season title six years ago with Auburn. The last time the Vols had won it outright was 2008.

Johnson led South Carolina with 18 points.

The Gamecocks needed a win over Tennessee - they won at Rocky Top in January - to tie for first in the SEC, a season after going 11-21. They were picked last in the media preseason poll this past October.

Freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles, who had his second straight double double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, said the team was disappointed its run at a regular-season title came up short.

"It's never going to be easy" to put that aside, he said. "But we just have to focus on the next part."

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Vols are hard to stop when Knecht is hitting timely shots from outside. And he's got some help with forward Jonas Aidoo and guard Zakai Zeigler, who combined for 27 points and 14 rebounds.

South Carolina: It's been a memorable season already for the Gamecocks with an unexpected title chase in coach Lamont Paris' second season. Ahead is a likely NCAA Tournament berth, their first since a Final Four run in 2017.

TEAM TURNAROUND

Barnes said he told Paris that if he had a vote, he'd pick Paris for national coach of the year. It's hard to dispute. The Gamecocks have improved by 13 wins from Paris' debut season and have victories against ranked SEC opponents in Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida this season. The Gamecocks still have a chance at a top-four seed and a double-bye for next week's SEC Tournament.

UP NEXT

Tennessee finishes the regular season at home against No. 15 Kentucky on Saturday.

South Carolina goes on the road to close the season against Mississippi State.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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