ATLANTA — The scene was practically scripted for orange-tinted failure.
Tennessee, in the midst of its best basketball of the season, faced a six-day break before tipping off against a cellar-dwelling SEC team. That team was one day removed from knocking off an NCAA tournament bubble team and had its eyes feasted on a repeat performance.
The setting? The SEC tournament — an event in which the Volunteers have had their bubbles bursted during each of Cuonzo Martin's first two seasons at the helm.
But no hangover was in the works Friday afternoon in Atlanta, as the Tennessee Volunteers led the South Carolina Gamecocks from start to finish and ended with a comfortable 59-44 victory in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
The Vols (21-11, 11-7 SEC) — now winners of five straight, their longest such streak of the season — advance to face No. 1 Florida in Saturday's semifinal round.
"I just think as a team and as a coach, we'll fight to the end," Martin said. "Whatever happens, you're trying to win ball games. You're trying to compete. You're trying to get better. You try to take pride as a coach and continue to get better as a team."
That level of fight was hardly demanded by the Gamecocks (14-20, 5-13), whose largest starter weighed some 45-plus pounds less than UT forward Jarnell Stokes. He seemed determined on exploiting that mismatch, as he erupted for 22 points and 15 rebounds — both game-highs.
Of course, it also didn't hurt that Stokes wasn't double-teamed for what he estimated to be just the second time this year.
Being able to play one-on-one for a change left Stokes feeling, well, "weird."
"As many points as I scored, they didn't double-team me, which was kind of weird," Stokes said. "This was the first game I felt like I haven't gotten double-teamed — this game and Missouri (on March 8)."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin's disinterest in double-teaming opposing players weighed large on UT's scouting report, Vols guard Jordan McRae noted.
"We knew from last game that Frank Martin isn't a guy to double-team," McRae said. "He wants to play man-to-man, and if they aren't going to double-team Jarnell, then we were planning on throwing it inside every time."
Instead of pulling out all of the stops for Stokes and Jeronne Maymon down low, the Gamecocks opted to honor the Vols' recent hot shooting from outside and play one-on-one. While that allowed Stokes to enjoy a field day, it did put the clamp on the Vols' shooters.
McRae joined Stokes as the only other Vol to notch double digits, but fellow starters Antonio Barton (0-of-3) and Josh Richardson (1-of-4) struggled shooting.
As a team, despite going 21-of-43 from the field, the Vols went just 2-of-9 from behind the arc.
But that didn't matter, with the Vols finally executing Cuonzo Martin's ideal offense. They kept every South Carolina scorer under double digits and held their fourth straight opponent to 20 points or less in the first half, heading into the halftime break leading 28-18.
"When I took over the program, this is what I envisioned defensively," Cuonzo Martin said. "But the first thing about defense is you have to buy in, totally buy in."
The Vols are proving to have done that as of late, especially Stokes and McRae — two players who have gone from strictly offensive weapons to something more resembling Martin's preferred product.
"Guys are trusting each other," Stokes said. "Guys are playing together on the defensive end. We don't have many breakdowns… Especially in the first five minutes of games, when we are able to get a big lead."
Such a game plan will likely not apply to Saturday's contest as the Vols face No. 1 Florida for a spot in the SEC tournament championship game. The Gators have won 24 straight games, including two over the Vols.
The Gators' alarming hot streak poses more than a problem or two for Tennessee. But Frank Martin, fresh off his second loss to Tennessee in just more than a month's time, doesn't see the Vols as dead in the water.
"Those guys are on a mission," Frank Martin said of UT. "That's what happens when you let time kind of take care of itself. Those guys understand what Cuonzo wants from them.
"When you watch them play, they're doing the same thing all the time, just like Florida. That's why those teams are so good — they got older guys. That's going to be a heck of a matchup."