ATLANTA (AP) - Tennessee’s defense is peaking for the postseason, just as coach Cuonzo Martin asked at the beginning of the season.
Jarnell Stokes scored 22 points, matching his season high, and Tennessee beat South Carolina 59-44 on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, adding a strong defensive effort to the Vols’ NCAA tournament hopes.
The Vols (21-11) will carry a five-game winning streak into Saturday’s semifinal against No. 1 Florida.
“We didn’t come to Atlanta to win one game,” Martin said. “We came to win the tournament. I told my guys if you’re not coming to win the tournament, don’t get on the bus.”
Tennessee has not trailed in the winning streak and kept its lead over the Gamecocks in double digits for most of the game.
Martin said the Vols have played defense in the winning streak “the way we wanted to, the way we talked about at the beginning of the season.”
“It’s been fun to watch,” Martin said.
Tennessee is No. 44 in the NCAA RPI and may have needed at least one Southeastern Conference tournament win to bolster its NCAA hopes.
South Carolina (14-20) didn’t score in the first six minutes, setting the mold for its offensive struggles. No South Carolina player scored in double figures.
Brenton Williams led the Gamecocks with nine points but made only 3 of 13 shots in his final college game.
South Carolina, the No. 13 seed, advanced to the quarterfinals with wins over Auburn and Arkansas but struggled in the matchups against the Vols.
“I told our assistants last night I think they’re playing better than anyone in our league right now,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin of Tennessee. “And I think Florida is real good. (The Vols) are a very good basketball team. They’re playing their best at the right time of year.”
Frank Martin said Tennessee’s perimeter size “really bothers us” and could give the Vols a chance against the Gators.
Stokes made nine of 14 shots, most coming near the basket.