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That was pretty much the storyline in Friday's SEC Tournament quarterfinals as the Vols trounced the Gamecocks 59-44 at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Stokes dominated inside, making nine of 14 field-goal tries and scoring a game-high 22 points. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound junior post also grabbed 15 rebounds en route to his 19th double-double of the season and 37th of his career. Tennessee's defense did the rest, limiting the Gamecocks to 27.1 percent shooting (16 of 59).
"I'm excited," Stokes said in the media room after the game. "We didn't have a good offensive game but our defense still led us to win by 20-plus."
Actually, the victory margin was 15 points but the assembled reporters were no more inclined to correct Stokes than the Gamecocks were inclined to contain him.
"If I had any concerns going into the game it was energy following the (six-day) layoff … how the guys got out of the gate," Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They were pumped up on the bus on the way over. The bus was rocking. Whatever they were doing I don't know but they were jumping."
Tennessee has not trailed in 200 minutes while fashioning a five-game winning streak. The Vols (21-11) probably locked up an NCAA Tournament bid on Friday. They could remove all doubt by beating top-ranked Florida (30-2) Saturday at 1 in semifinal action.
Asked if he thinks the Vols have secured a bid to The Dance, Martin replied in the affirmative.
"Strange ... I felt that way before we came to Atlanta, I really did," he said. "But we came to win this tournament. It was the most important thing. Now you've got a chance to play against the best team in the country."
The Vols seem excited about getting another shot at the Gators.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country," Stokes said. "So we have a great opportunity to see how well we've been playing as of late and to see how well it will play out against Florida."
The Gators defeated the Big Orange twice during the regular season, romping 67-41 at Gainesville and 67-58 in the rematch at Knoxville. Billy Donovan's team posted a program-record 24th consecutive victory earlier Friday, rallying from a 29-all halftime tie to bury Missouri 72-49. Guards Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier scored 15 points each for the Gators, who closed the game on a 34-13 run.
Whereas Florida finished its quarterfinal game on a roll, Tennessee opened its quarterfinal game on a roll. For the fifth game in succession the Vols raced to an early lead and never trailed.
Stokes and McRae scored three points each as Tennessee jumped on top 6-0. Three-point buckets by reserve guards Armani Moore and Darius Thompson widened the gap to 12-2. At this point the Gamecocks were just 1 of 12 from the field. The Vols easily could've led by 20-2 if they had made half their shots and been a little more careful with the ball.
"Coming out here, we're going to to miss shots," senior post Jeronne Maymon said. "But when we set a tone defensively good things are bound to happen."
And they did. The Vols parlayed their fast start into a relatively easy victory.
"It was exciting to see those guys get out of the gate the way they did," Martin said. "That's what 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."
A rash of Vol turnovers enabled South Carolina to creep within four points at 18-14 but Stokes scored on a put-back and a layup, bumping the lead to 22-14 with 4:52 left to intermission. The Big Orange led 28-18 at the half, despite making just seven of 14 foul shots and committing 7 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
A layup and a four-foot left-hand hook by Stokes, followed by another Armani Moore 3-pointer, gave Tennessee an 18-point lead (43-25) with 12:07 to play. South Carolina narrowed the gap to 12 at 46-34 but Jeronne Maymon stopped the rally with a three-point play and a layup, bumping the lead to 51-34 with 7:25 to play. The Gamecocks never got closer than 15 points again.
Tennessee shot a solid 48.8 percent (21 of 43) from the field, 22.2 percent (2 of 9) from 3-point range and 60 percent (15 of 25) from the foul line. Carolina shot 27.1 from the field, 25 percent from 3 and 80 percent from the line.
Rallying from a slow start, McRae made 6 of 11 field-goal tries and chipped in 14 points for the Vols. His perimeter scoring helped open things up for Stokes on the inside.
"Jordan helps me out a lot because teams respect Jordan so much," Stokes said. "In my opinion, he's the best scorer in the SEC. Teams respect him a lot, so he helps me out a lot."
Brenton Williams made just 3 of 13 field-goal tries but scored nine points to pace the Gamecocks, who close the season with a 14-20 record.
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Jordan McRae video interview
Josh Richardson video interview
Jarnell Stokes video interview
See action photos from InsideTennessee photographer with the slideshow below (click to enlarge):