March 14, 2014
ATLANTA, Ga. -- Tennessee's defense is peaking for the postseason, just as coach Cuonzo Martin asked at the beginning of the season.
Jarnell Stokes scored 22 points, matching his season high, and Tennessee beat South Carolina 59-44 on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, adding a strong defensive effort to the Vols' NCAA tournament hopes.
The Vols (21-11) will carry a five-game winning streak into Saturday's semifinal against No. 1 Florida.
"We didn't come to Atlanta to win one game," Martin said. "We came to win the tournament. I told my guys if you're not coming to win the tournament, don't get on the bus."
Tennessee has not trailed in the winning streak and kept its lead over the Gamecocks in double digits for most of the game.
Martin said the Vols have played defense in the winning streak "the way we wanted to, the way we talked about at the beginning of the season."
"It's been fun to watch," Martin said.
Tennessee is No. 44 in the NCAA RPI and may have needed at least one Southeastern Conference tournament win to bolster its NCAA hopes.
South Carolina (14-20) didn't score in the first six minutes, setting the mold for its offensive struggles. No South Carolina player scored in double figures.
Brenton Williams led the Gamecocks with nine points but made only 3 of 13 shots in his final college game.
Jordan McRae had 14 points for Tennessee. Stokes had 15 rebounds, three below his career high.
South Carolina, the No. 13 seed, advanced to the quarterfinals with wins over Auburn and Arkansas but struggled in the matchups against the Vols.
"I told our assistants last night I think they're playing better than anyone in our league right now," said South Carolina coach Frank Martin of Tennessee. "And I think Florida is real good. (The Vols) are a very good basketball team. They're playing their best at the right time of year."
Frank Martin said Tennessee's perimeter size "really bothers us" and could give the Vols a chance against the Gators.
Stokes made nine of 14 shots, most coming near the basket.
"You've got to pick your poison with them," said Frank Martin. "You start committing to Jarnell Stokes too much, and then their baskets start counting as 3s, not 2s."
The Gamecocks, playing their third game in three days, made only 16 of 59 shots (27.1 percent).
"I think it was tough on us playing our third game in a row," said South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell, who had seven points. "We just didn't have the energy and, like coach said, the oomph, to get things going. That hurt us against a good team."
It was only the latest in an impressive string of smothering defensive efforts for the Vols.
Tennessee led 28-18 at halftime, marking the fourth straight game the Vols have held opponents to no more than 20 points in the first half.
Defense has been the constant in the Vols' winning streak. Tennessee has allowed an average of only 49.8 points in the five straight wins. It won its last three regular-season games by a combined margin of 93 points and was in command against the Gamecocks despite an unimpressive offensive showing.
"I'm excited because I feel like we didn't have a good offensive game but our defense still let us win by" 15, Stokes said. "I'm excited because we still won off defense."
South Carolina didn't score in the opening six minutes. Following seven missed shots, the Gamecocks' first points came on a jumper by Laimonas Chatkevicius with 13:54 remaining in the half.
A three-point play by Darius Thomas gave Tennessee its first double-digit lead at 12-2.
The Gamecocks pulled to within seven points at 30-23 on a three-point play by Chatkevicius early in the second half. McRae answered with a powerful jam, sparking a 13-2 run that stretched the lead to 18 points at 43-25.
Tennessee wore the white uniforms with neon orange trim that it debuted in its final regular-season game against Missouri.
Led by Stokes' monster start (12 points and 8 rebounds), the Vols led 28-18 at halftime. Tennessee limited South Carolina to just seven made field goals as the Vols' defense held the Gamecocks to just 25.9 percent from the floor.
The Vols jumped out to a 6-0 lead in holding South Carolina without a point for the game's first 6:06. That was the fourth time this season that Tennessee held an opponent without a point for at least five minutes.
It was the longest an opponent had gone before scoring vs. Tennessee to begin a game this season. The previous was 5:03, also vs. South Carolina.