KNOXVILLE – Tennessee came into Saturday’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena as the heavy favorite against South Carolina.
It didn’t take the Vols long to show why as they cruised to an easy 72-53 win in front of just over 17,000 in attendance in Knoxville – their 13th straight win in the series over South Carolina.
Tennessee scored the first 10 points of the game, led 16-2 by the 13-minute mark and had the advantage stretched to 32-15 at the 6:35 mark of the first half after back-to-back one-handed slams by forward Jarnell Stokes. A Jordan McRae 3 capped a nearly-perfect first half as the Vols (15-8, 6-4 SEC) cruised to the break with a commanding 45-22 edge.
Fueled by the frustration of Wednesday night’s loss at Vanderbilt, the Vols – as they regularly do – came out strong in the bounce-back effort. They have yet to lose back-to-back games this season.
“I noticed that when we lose we come back and we gather up and we come out with a lot of fire,” said Stokes. “We play hard the next couple games and history tells we might have a drop game coming soon. We are just fighting that sequence the way we come out and play flat in certain games.”
"We know what's at stake here,” added McRae. “We definitely don't want to lose the game from the jump. But we definitely can't lose two games in a row, that causes all kinds of problems that you don't want."
South Carolina (8-15, 1-9) responded with a better second-half effort, but never truly threatened to get back in the game. The Gamecocks used a 10-0 run to cut their deficit down to 13 with 9:09 remaining. UT guards Armani Moore and Jordan McRae answered with back-to-back 3s on the ensuing possessions, stretching the lead back to 19.
Those buckets highlighted a 10-2 run for the Vols that made the final minutes more of a formality. The lead hovered around 20 from that point on before UT finished off the blowout win.
“I feel like my shot was a good shot," said Moore, who finished with nine points. "I had a good look – same as Jordan. We were kind of in a slump right there, but that’s going to happen. Teams are going to go on runs, so we have to know how to bounce back.”
McRae had 20 first-half points and finished with 24 total on 8 of 14 shooting. Stokes had 17 points and eight boards in the winning effort.
And while UT is certainly pleased to get the win against any conference opponent, even the team in last place in the league, Saturday’s game was more about not losing NCAA tournament positioning. Tuesday’s matchup against first-place Florida in Knoxville will be more about potentially gaining tournament ground.
The No. 3 Gators (21-2, 10-0 SEC) pounded the Vols 67-41 in Gainesville on Jan. 25. Asking the Vols to turn around just a couple weeks later and win, even at home, is a tall order, but it might be UT’s last chance to knock off a ranked opponent until the postseason. A win wouldn’t guarantee anything for UT. It would, however, put the Vols on much steadier postseason ground.
"Obviously a very talented opponent,” Martin said of the upcoming game against the Gators. “I go back to it – it's a league opponent and you compete against teams in the league. You have to battle. You have to play hard.
“The thing I told our guys- they won because they were the better team that day. It wasn't because they were the home team. They were the better team on that floor. The key is for us to be the best team on the floor Tuesday night."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga