ATLANTA, Ga. – Tennessee didn’t bring its dominant all-around game that’s been on display over the last few games.
The Vols didn’t need it on Friday afternoon, however.
Another stingy performance on defense and a strong effort from forward Jarnell Stokes (22 points, 15 rebounds) were enough as the Vols (21-11) ended South Carolina’s four-game winning streak and advanced to the semifinals to face No. 1 seed Florida on Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome (1 p.m. ET, ABC) after a 59-44 win over the Gamecocks.
“I don’t feel like I carried the load,” said Stokes, who recorded his 19th double-double of the season. “Our defense carried the load. On the offensive end, we weren’t really playing as well as we had been the last couple games, but defensively we force teams to take terrible shots and we got the rebounds.
“As far as how many points I scored – they didn’t double team me, which was kind of weird. It was the first game I feel like I haven’t gotten double-teamed. This game and [the regular-season finale] against Missouri.”
The Vols extended their streak of wire-to-wire wins to five, meaning the Vols haven’t trailed in 200 minutes of game time. They jumped out to a 6-0 lead and South Carolina (14-20) never got it closer than four points after that point.
There were some sloppy moments early in Tennessee’s first game since the Vols blew out Missouri last Saturday to wrap up the regular season. With UT coming off a long break and South Carolina playing its third game in three days, it was understandable that the Vols had to knock off some early rust.
“Everybody was really hyped about it – it’s the SEC tournament,” said guard Jordan McRae, who finished with 14 points on 6 of 11 shooting. “I think that’s why we were missing some of the [early] easy ones.”
“My concern, more than anything, coming in the game was we had the six-day layoff,” added coach Cuonzo Martin. “We hadn’t done it all season and that’s so much time – it’s a fine balance of when you practice, how you practice and how long you practice.”
The Vols scrapped their way to a 28-18 lead at the half. SC got it down to 30-23 at the 16:38 mark, but it didn’t take long for Tennessee to put it out of reach.
A 13-2 run over the next four minutes put the Vols up 43-25 at the under-12 timeout of the second half. The Gamecocks never got within single digits down the stretch as the Vols finished off the comfortable win. And while Tennessee heated up to finish at 49 percent from the field, it was the defense that ultimately kept South Carolina from making any kind of late run.
“I think we’re a better team on the defensive end,” said McRae. “I think we’re a whole different team on that end and the way we’re playing on defense is definitely helping our offense out.”
The Vols have now held their last four opponents to an average of just 45.2 points per game.
“When I took over the program, this is what I envisioned defensively,” said Martin.
The celebration from Friday’s win quickly gave way to a heightened sense of focus for the Vols with the realization that the tournament’s No. 1 seed, as well as the No. 1 team in the nation, Florida, is up next.
The Gators knocked off Tennessee twice this year with an average margin of victory of 17.5 points per game. The Vols hung with them in Knoxville until the closing minutes on Feb. 11. Now playing with a renewed focus on defense, they hope to get over the hump in their third matchup of the season.
“I feel like at the end of games, especially when we were at home, they wanted it more,” said Stokes. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country so we have a great opportunity to see how well we’ve been playing of late and to see how it will play out against Florida.”
Tennessee hasn’t won an SEC tournament since 1979. And Martin, who feels like his team already did enough to make the NCAA tournament before coming to Atlanta, is focused on only that task, not tracking the bubble and guessing where UT will fall.
“We came to win the tournament,” Martin said. “I told the guys, if you’re not going to win the tournament, don’t get on the bus.”
The Vols are now just two steps away from that goal with a giant leap needed Saturday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga