Heading into today's 2014 SEC Tournament opener against South Carolina (3:30 p.m. tipoff on ESPNU), the Vols are riding a four-game winning streak that has been fueled by a take-no-prisoners defensive effort. They held Mississippi State to 34.6 percent first-half shooting on Feb. 26 en route to a 35-24 halftime lead. They held Vanderbilt to 31.8 percent first-half shooting March 1 en route to a 41-18 halftime lead. They held Auburn to 32.0 percent first-half shooting March 5 en route to a 44-20 halftime lead, then held Missouri to 31.8 percent first-half shooting March 8 en route to a 37-19 halftime lead.
That type of stifling defense can carry you a long way, even when your offense is struggling a bit.
"We're taking teams hearts early," senior point guard Antonio Barton said. "We tell each other in the starting five that we're going to leave it all out on the court. Don't leave nothing in the locker room. We're going to play our hearts out and take the game over early."
That strategy worked exceptionally well the past three games, spurring the Vols to a 38-point defeat of Vandy, a 28-point defeat of Auburn and a 27-point defeat of Missouri.
"The last three games we've wanted to out-tough the other team," junior post Jarnell Stokes said. "If shots aren't falling I feel like we still would've won because our defense is finally coming into the slogan ‘Tougher Breed.'"
"For some people defense isn't a mindset. It's just something they've got to do," Maymon said. "Me and Josh take pride in defense. We're the engines on the defensive end. Once we get going, everybody else hops on board and we're unstoppable on the defensive end."
The defensive upgrade isn't just about Maymon and Richardson, though. Tennessee's team defense is far better in March than it was in previous months. All of the parts are working together. If one Vol loses his man, another Vol is there to save the day.
"I think trusting is the biggest thing," Maymon said. "We know if we get beat somebody's going to be there to help."
Senior wing Jordan McRae believes the improved defense can be traced to improved communication.
"Everybody's been talking on defense," he said. "Talking on defense is half the battle, and everybody's been doing a good job on that."
Whatever the Vols are doing, they need to keep doing it. They have been very impressive in beating the last three opponents by an average of 31 points per game.
"It's shown what we're capable of," Barton said. "We had our ups and downs earlier in the season but we're capitalizing now. We've just got to keep locked in and focused, and play defense."
No Vol is more amped up about the SEC Tournament than McRae. He was a freshman on the 2010-11 team that beat Arkansas before losing to Florida in Game 2, a sophomore on the 2011-12 team that lost its SEC opener to Ole Miss and a junior on the 2012-13 team that beat Mississippi State before losing Game 2 to Alabama. That 2-3 record shows just how poorly the Big Orange has played in this event lately.
"We've always come out flat," McRae said. "Right now I think we're on a good run with the way we're playing defense. We just have to continue doing the same things."
Stokes hopes the Vols will do just that.
"I want this year to be different for us – go into the tournament and do some damage," he said. "I feel like we're capable of playing well. That's the challenge for us mentally."
This will be the final SEC Tournament for seniors McRae, Maymon and D'montre Edwards. Performing well enough to lock down an NCAA Tournament bid would mean a lot.
"It would mean everything to us," McRae said. "This is our last year. We have a great team and a great shot to do some big things."
GAME NOTES: Fourth-seeded Tennessee (20-11) rolled to a 45-22 halftime lead and coasted to a 72-53 trouncing of 13th-seeded South Carolina in the regular-season meeting Feb. 8 at Knoxville. Jordan McRae played one of his best games of the season, hitting 6 of 8 shots from 3 en route to 24 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, a block and a steal. Freshman Sindarius Thornwell led the Gamecocks with 15 points, 4 assists and 4 steals…. South Carolina brings a 14-19 record into the game after upsetting No. 12 seed Auburn 74-56 Wednesday night, then upsetting No. 5 seed Arkansas 71-69 Thursday afternoon. The Tigers beat the Razorbacks despite shooting a mere 38.3 percent from the field.
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