KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Volunteers called a team meeting earlier in the week to talk about defense and commitment to playing their style of basketball.
"The offense is there. We're leading the league in scoring, so all of that is there. We've just got to play our defense, and we'll be fine," Tennessee's Tyler Smith said.
Even with that pep talk, the No. 24 Vols needed a late flurry of points from Smith to overcome sloppy second half defense and hold on to beat South Carolina 82-79 on Saturday night. Smith scored 15 of his team-high 20 points after halftime.
The team meeting came Wednesday, a day after the Vols allowed Kentucky's Jodie Meeks to set a team record with 54 points. Their performance Saturday showed they still have a lot to learn.
Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) led by as many as 19 points in the first half and was up 17 with 8:18 left on a dunk by Scotty Hopson, who had a career-high 19 points.
South Carolina ramped up its defense while the Vols got lax, and the Gamecocks whittled down the margin thanks to several inside shots by Devan Downey.
Zam Fredrick hit a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left to cut Tennessee's lead to 81-77, but Bobby Maze of the Vols hit a free throw with 15 seconds left.
Mike Holmes hit a jumper after grabbing an offensive rebound to bring the Gamecocks within 82-79 with 9 seconds left. After a turnover, Holmes missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 7 seconds to go and Tennessee ran out the clock.
"We can't dig ourselves in a 14-, 16-point deficit," Downey said. "The focus we had in the second half we need for 40 minutes."
Downey and Dominque Archie both had 19 points for South Carolina (12-4, 1-2).
Cameron Tatum added 12 points and Brian Williams grabbed 11 rebounds for the Vols, who avoided their first three-game home losing streak under coach Bruce Pearl.
Fredrick added 18 points for the Gamecocks and Holmes had 10, while Archie grabbed 12 rebounds.
Tennessee went on an early 12-0 run. Smith kicked it inside to Hopson, who spun around for a dunk to give the Vols a 14-4 lead.
"Our kids fought hard without question, and they gave great efforts in the second half, and they played with the kind of mentality that we want," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "But we have got to learn to come out with good effort from the get-go."
Pearl shuffled his lineup after Wayne Chism, Smith and J.P. Prince picked up some quick fouls, and 3-pointers by Archie and Evaldas Bainulis helped trim the lead to 27-21 with 5:59 left in the half.
Tennessee, whose defense has been suspect in recent losses stifled the Gamecocks inside with the help of Williams, and the Vols built their lead to as many as 19 points and led 43-28 at halftime.
The Vols dominated the paint, scoring 54 points inside, but the Gamecocks scored 25 points off of an uncharacteristic 22 turnovers by Tennessee.
South Carolina shot 41.2 percent from the field compared to Tennessee's 58.5 percent, it's highest since the season opener against Chattanooga.
"You look at the stat sheet, and you come to the conclusion that we should not have had to come in for a three-point landing," Pearl said.