The last-place team played like one. And Tennessee played like the contender it has shown shades of being.
Jordan McRae scored 20 of his 24 points in the first half, and the Tennessee Volunteers throttled the hapless South Carolina Gamecocks, 72-53 on Saturday afternoon inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
The lopsided win marked the eighth time this season the Vols have won a game while leading from start to finish and the 13th straight program victory over South Carolina.
"Good bounce-back win for our guys," head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I thought the guys did a good job at both ends of the floor. Great job facilitating the basketball in the first half."
While the majority of UT's conference contests have been dogfights, the Vols' win on Saturday was practically locked up minutes after the opening tip.
It took Tennessee less than five minutes to sprint out to a 10-0 lead, and other than 15 points from Sindarius Thornwell, the Gamecocks showed little ability to sway a game that was UT's from start to finish.
McRae nearly outscored the Gamecocks by himself in the first half, as his 20 points were just two shy of USC's 22 first-half points.
As a team, South Carolina shot just 36 percent (20-for-53) from the field, while the Vols looked impressive from the field in hitting 28 of their 53 attempts (53 percent).
"I don't want to hear this nonsense I read about or hear on TV, they're real good," South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said of UT. "They're good and they played that way, and we paid the price with a game we never really had a chance to win."
The Vols took advantage of South Carolina's size deficiency in the post, unleashing Jarnell Stokes for a 13-point first half that included two one-handed dunks that electrified the crowd of 17,215 on hand.
He finished with 17 points and eight boards, while post sidekick Jeronne Maymon added 10 points and eight rebounds as both enjoyed productive days from the field against the undersized Gamecocks.
"Really, the focus was to get the ball inside to our bigs and allow those guys to play," Martin said. "(The Gamecocks) like to play aggressive, man-to-man defense around the rim. We felt like we could get our big guys off to a good start."
Along with dominating the post, UT had a groove going from the outside as it hit five 3-pointers in the first half — all of which came from McRae — and finished 7-for-16 from beyond the arc.
By the early parts of the second half, Saturday's game had more of the feel of a preseason scrimmage than a SEC game. That allowed Martin to toy with a number of different lineups.
Eleven players saw action Saturday for the Vols thanks to the one-sided scoreboard, which Martin attributed to rest but likely had more to do with UT's heavy lead.
"We were ready to rotate some guys in there just in case some guys looked a little sluggish," Martin said.
Armani Moore emerged as one bench player who continued to impress. Serving as the first guard off the bench in recent SEC games, Moore tied his career-high with nine points and added three rebounds in 17 minutes of action.
"He's one of those guys you would like to have on the floor," Martin said, "but it just depends on games. I have to do a better job as a coach in trying to get him on the floor as much as possible."
Seemingly every time the Tennessee lead dwindled lower than 20 in the second half, Martin would re-insert his starting lineup and watch the lead balloon again.
The Gamecocks got as close as 13 just under the 10-minute mark thanks to a 10-0 run, but that would be as close as the road team got in the closing moments. Once McRae, Maymon and Stokes strutted back onto the floor, South Carolina's run was thwarted.
Saturday's win could not have come at a better time for the Vols, who snapped a two-game win streak with a loss at Vanderbilt on Wednesday that seemed to re-insert Tennessee on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
That two-game string of wins was the Vols' longest in SEC play, as trading wins and losses have helped produce a maddening trend of mediocrity for UT since the start of conference play.
Stokes has taken notice, as have his teammates, who insist on putting a stop to it, starting Tuesday with a home game against No. 3 Florida.
"It's funny, I noticed that when we lose, we come back and gather up to play with a lot of fire," Stokes said. "We play hard the next couple games and history tells us we may have a drop game coming soon.
"We are just fighting that sequence."