Cuonzo Martin recaps win over South Carolina
Jarnell Stokes talks about how the Vols' bounce back
Shortly after the rubber band Vols snapped back again, Jarnell Stokes tried to explain this trend.
The Tennessee men’s basketball forward had scored 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds. His teammate, Jordan McRae, posted a game-high 24 points. And UT dismissed South Carolina in blowout fashion, 72-53, at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
That the Vols would bring their A-game to their meeting with the SEC’s bottom-dwelling Gamecocks was perhaps the most predictable thing about this perpetually confusing team. UT was still stinging from its 64-60 loss to rival Vanderbilt on Wednesday. Properly motivated, it improved to 7-1 this season in games that followed a loss.
“When we lose, we come back, we gather up and come out with a lot of fire,” Stokes said. “We play hard the next couple of games.”
The Vols (15-8, 6-4 SEC) avoided the dreaded “flat start” that doomed them in Nashville thanks to a 10-0 run to start the game. South Carolina (8-15, 1-9) didn’t score until its star freshman point guard Sindarius Thornwell (15 points) hit his first jumper five minutes in. It was too late by then. Soon, McRae was holding three fingers in the air after swished 3-pointers (he made six of eight), and Stokes was making the rim shake with one- and two-handed slams. Forward Jeronne Maymon was a quiet contributor. He finished with 10 points and eight boards.
“We’ve done a solid job bouncing back after a loss, especially ones that are really tough losses, physical and mental losses,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.
UT notched a season-high in first-half points and led 45-22 at intermission. When South Carolina took advantage of UT turning to its bench in the second half and cut the Vols’ lead to 13 (54-41) with nine minutes to play, Martin sent the starters back in. They snapped off an 11-2 run. The Vols shot 52.8 percent from the field. They’re yet to lose a game under Martin when they shoot 50 or better. When shots don’t fall, it’s a different story.
“In a lot of games we come out not shooting as confident,” Stokes said. “We may miss two or three shots and all of a sudden it’s a bad shooting night.”
Those nights will be the black marks on UT’s NCAA tournament resume. The hardest to explain are UTEP, North Carolina State, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Tennessee held winning streaks entering three of those games. The only time its lost back-to-back this season was against Wichita State and N.C. State.
“I wouldn’t go that far, to say we can’t handle success,” McRae said. “I can’t point to a reason why. Our focus has to be better, all the time. Playing South Carolina, our focus was there all practice, all week. I think our focus has to be there all the time, no matter who we are playing, last place team or first place team.”
That’s exactly the switch the Vols will make on Tuesday, when No. 3 Florida comes to Thompson-Boling Arena. The Gators thumped UT 67-41 in Gainesville on Jan. 25. McRae scored a season-low five points in that game. He made one of his 15 shots.
“Did I know Florida was after this one?” he said. “Yeah. Was I thinking about the game plan versus Florida? No. I’ll think about it now. Me being an older guy, I know that if we would have dropped this game, that’s when it turns into people start pressing. ‘We must win. We must win.’ Getting a nice win today, everybody’s spirits will be high going into tomorrow’s practice.”
Yes, the Vols got back on track Saturday. They’ve been able to do that all season. The bigger question is: What happens now?
“My concern is coming out, playing hard and avoiding those flat games that we have,” Stokes said. “History tells (us) we may have a flat game coming soon, when we have been playing well. We have to understand our history. We have to know any game, we could lose.”