The Tennessee men's basketball Senior Day started with a joke and ended with smiles at Thompson-Boling Arena.
A quartet of Vols' underclassmen forgot to observe the daylight savings time changeover and showed up late for the pre-game shoot-around, drawing playful ribbing from the seniors.
"We told them we better not lose,'' UT senior JaJuan Smith said, "or they'll be writing in the papers, 'You snooze, you lose.' "
The No. 4-ranked Vols had a collective awakening after leading South Carolina by one at the half, running away with an 89-56 victory before a crowd of 21,734 Sunday afternoon.
The 33-point margin ranks as the Vols' most lopsided in SEC play this season - nine points greater than the second-biggest margin, UT's 80-56 win over the Gamecocks in Columbia.
UT closed the regular season 28-3, 14-2 in the SEC, strengthening its case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while also extending its homecourt win streak to 32 games.
Senior Chris Lofton scored a season-high 28 points, draining 10 of 16 shots from the floor including 6 of 10 beyond the 3-point arc before leaving the game to a thunderous standing ovation in the final minutes.
"It hasn't completely sunk in that was my last game here,'' said Lofton, who moved up to fifth place on UT's all-time scoring list with 2,067 points, passing Dale Ellis (1979-83). "I think it affected me last night. I didn't sleep last night.''
Smith, who scored 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds, said the seniors left the underclassmen a message with the homecourt win streak.
"We talk about it, and we say 'we don't lose here,' " Smith said. "We try to make that a big statement.''
The Gamecocks made a statement of their own after Smith's 3-pointer at the 12:26 mark gave UT a 22-14 lead.
South Carolina battled back to tie the game at 27 on a Mike Holmes drive with 6:07 left in the half, and again at 35 on Evaldas Baniulis' 3-pointer at the 1:48 mark.
The second half, however, was all orange.
The Vols opened the final 20 minutes on an 11-2 run, going up 49-39 on a Duke Crews basket with 16:32 left.
A Dominique Archie 3-pointer at the 15:07 mark cut UT's lead to 49-42 with 15:07 on the clock, but the Vols refused to slow down.
Tennessee was up 64-43 before South Carolina scored another field goal with 8:37 left.
Even with all 14 players on the roster seeing action, the Vols' lead swelled, and was up to 89-51, compliments of a 21-0 run, before the Gamecocks scored the final five points.
"We came out colder than the frigid Smoky Mountains to start the second half,'' South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "We could not make a shot, and they came out on fire. We really got fatigued and flamed out.''
In addition to his offense, Smith kept South Carolina's Devan Downey in check, holding the SEC's third-leading scorer (18.9 points per game) to two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
UT coach Bruce Pearl is giving his players today off before bringing them back to the gym for a hard Tuesday practice.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get better as a basketball team as the prizes continue to grow,'' Pearl said. "Hopefully we'll go into this SEC tournament fresh and with a lot to play for.''
The Vols open the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome at 1 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday's 1 p.m. game between South Carolina and LSU (12-81, 6-10). Ironically, the Gamecocks and the Tigers have taken turns eliminating the Vols the past two league tournaments.
"This team has embraced history more than any other UT team I've played for,'' Vols senior Jordan Howell said. "We know to make history, we need to go down there and win the SEC tournament.''
Orange Slices: UT's seniors - Lofton, Smith and Howell - have accumulated 87 wins, two shy of the school record set by the Class of '01. ... The Vols are one game short of the longest homecourt win streak in school history (33), set between Jan. 2, 1966 and Feb. 24, 1968. ... UT's home attendance average of 20,267 this season ranks fourth in the nation behind Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina and second in school history behind the record year of 1987-88 (20,823), when Thompson-Boling first opened. ... The four underclassmen who were late Sunday morning were Tyler Smith, Duke Crews, Josh Tabb and J.P. Prince. ... Pearl started freshman Brian Williams in place of Tyler Smith, and brought the players into the game later than normal in the first half.