By Alex Norman

It wasn’t a thing of beauty by any means, but it was a win… and in the SEC tournament, wins are not always easy to come by for the Tennessee Volunteers.

The Vols knocked off South Carolina 59-44 in the SEC quarterfinals in Atlanta on Friday, March 14th.  It was their fifth straight victory… and for the fifth straight game, Tennessee (21-11) never trailed.  As a matter of fact, the Gamecocks didn’t even score their first points until the game was more than 6 minutes old.

“(It) was exciting to see those guys get out the gates the way they did and just really defend,” said Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin. “That’s the thing we talked about, defending the way we wanted to defend, at the beginning of the season. Our guys have done it the last five games and it’s fun to watch.”

The Vols knew they would have the advantage inside against the Gamecocks (14-20).  And while the rebounding stats didn’t tell the story (Tennessee 36, South Carolina 35), Tennessee junior forward Jarnell Stokes certainly did.  Stokes matched a season high with 22 points, plus 15 rebounds.   South Carolina simply had no answer for him.

“I’m excited because I feel like we didn’t have a good offensive game, but our defense still led us to win by 20-plus (final margin actually 15),” said Stokes.  “The last couple games we shot the ball tremendously well and we didn’t shoot the ball as well today, but I’m excited because we still won… just off defense.”

Tennessee senior guard Antonio Barton had been red hot lately, but not on this day at the Georgia Dome, scoring only one point and missing all three of his field goal attempts.  However, the Vols didn’t need that much scoring in this contest.  Tennessee senior guard Jordan McRae had 14 points.  He and Stokes were the only Vols to reach double figures.

Considering how well the Vols have played over the past couple of weeks, Martin admitted he was concerned going into the tournament because his team hadn’t played in six days.  That could knock a team off its rhythm.   But this is an experienced group of players, and the veterans guarded against any kind of letdown.

“You haven’t done it all season, so much time, because it’s a fine balance of when you practice, how you practice, how long you practice,” said Martin. “You got to have some contact in there. You want to go in transition but not too much. So that was the tricky part for us as a coaching staff, to make sure we had the fresh legs to compete and play the game. We know the emotions and the energy would be high coming in… but I knew the guys would play hard and compete. They’re playing well together as a team.”

The win put the Vols in the SEC semifinals for the first time since 2010.  They would face top-seed Florida in that contest.  Results of the game were not available at press time.

The much maligned Martin likely has earned a fourth year as Tennessee’s head coach.  The question remains as to how much further this team can go.  The Vols are playing their best basketball of the season at the perfect time.