KNOXVILLE—Tennessee was losing traction in the type of SEC meeting it can’t afford to lose amid a season in which every game has become crucial to its postseason hopes.
The Vols trailed South Carolina, 34-31, when senior guard Jordan Bowden missed a layup with 16 minutes, 17 seconds remaining to kickstart what would be a 3:14 scoring drought. Redshirt junior guard Jalen Johnson and junior forward Yves Pons both missed 3-pointers and freshmen guards Santiago Vescovi and Davonte Gaines each committed a turnover during that span.
UT needed a spark, and it happened to come from the lone scholarship player averaging less than 10 minutes per game.
Freshman forward Drew Pember checked in for the first time midway through the second half and helped erase an 8-point deficit in the Vols’ 56-55 victory over the Gamecocks on Saturday inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Those young guys get in the game and they are trying to make things happen,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Drew has worked harder in practice. We felt going in that we’re in a position right now that if they do what we ask them to do in practice, we are going to give them a chance. It is just a matter of when and where.”
The Vols (10-5, 2-1 SEC) outscored the Gamecocks (8-7, 0-2), 21-11, during the nine-minute, 10-second stint Pember spent on the court after entering with 13:47 remaining.
He logged five points and two rebounds in 10 minutes against South Carolina, tied for the third-most time he has seen on the court this season. His plus-7 plus-minus was second on the team behind Vescovi’s plus-9.
“I feel like I can (play at a SEC level),” Pember said. “There are still a bunch of things I have to improve, and I’ll talk to Coach and try to improve every day.”
Pember is a 6-foot-9 forward with a guard skill set that could be beneficial for a Tennessee offense that has struggled in recent weeks. It has shot 40% or less from the floor four times in its last seven games.
Defense, however, is what keeps the Bearden alum on the bench, and it is the reason he had to come out against South Carolina.
An overaggressive closeout allowed T.J. Moss to drive by Pember and make a floater to cut UT’s lead to 52-48 with 5:56 remaining. Jermaine Couisnard got to the rim with ease against Pember 40 seconds later, and then he fouled Couisnard to avoid giving up another layup on the next possession.
A year ago, Pember didn’t have a problem guarding on the perimeter in high school gyms across Tennessee.
He limited Maryville point guard and Furman commit Joe Anderson to 11 points in the final regular season meeting between the District 4-AAA rivals on Feb. 5 and 17 points in the Region 2-AAA semifinals despite battling foul trouble.
Anderson, the 2018-19 Daily Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year, averaged 20.6 points per game last season, but Pember made it difficult for him to shoot from distance and was quick enough to stay in front of him.
That one-minute, 19-second span against the Gamecocks, though, showed how much Pember has to improve to be able to do that at the collegiate level.
“I’m not the best,” Pember said. “(Guards are) definitely a lot faster than they were in high school, and that’s the biggest thing that I have to work on, but I’m willing to do it and try to help my team in any way that I can.”
The Vols need Pember to grow as a defender and continue displaying the offensive potential he possesses, especially given the recent struggles of fellow freshman forward Olivier Nkamhoua.
If anything, Saturday was proof he is capable of doing so.
“I’m definitely getting a lot more comfortable out there,” Pember said. “Those first SEC jitters and stuff like that, that happens being a young guy, but I think I’m past that now, and I’ll just get more comfortable as I move on.”