With a furious finish, Coach Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Vols presented Martin with his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
By beating a weak South Carolina team, the Vols all but solidified an at-large bid, leaving the SEC with only three teams that will make the 68-team tournament field.
The only way the conference will get four spots is if a team other than Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee can run the table and win Sunday's Championship Game. It would be a highly unlikely scenario in what has been considered a weak basketball conference this season.
Other than getting its fifth straight win, beating a South Carolina team that was 5-13 in conference play will do little to enhance their NCAA Tournament credentials.
While ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Vols in the tournament with an 11-seed and opening against 6-seed St. Louis in Buffalo, CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm wasn't ready to anoint the Vols after Friday's win.
Palm said on the Inside College Basketball show Friday that all the Vols gained with the South Carolina win was “treading water.''
Palm said Tennessee needs to beat No. 1 Florida Saturday to cement an at-large berth.
I believe the Vols have shown they belong. They have not trailed in their last five games. They have won by margins of 19, 7, 38, 28, 27 and 15 points in winning six of their last seven games. Those opponents averaged only 49.8 points a game.
They didn't allow South Carolina to get off the mat, getting off to a 12-2 lead while holding the Gamecocks to seven field goals in the first half. South Carolina cashed in on only 25.9 percent from the field and didn't score in the first 6:06 of the game.
Junior center Darnell Stokes led the Vols with his 19th double-double of the season. Stokes had 22 points and grabbed 15 boards in 32 minutes. The Vols were running their offense through Stokes and he was active on both ends of the court.
It has been the Vols' team defense that has carried them down the stretch. South Carolina finished the game making only 27.1 percent of its shots.
“We wanted to keep our foot on the gas the whole time,'' said Vols senior Jordan McRae. “The first half everybody was hyped up.''
The Vols now face top-ranked Florida, the regular season champion with a perfect 18-0 record. The Gators are looking for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won't be looking ahead.
“Any time you get a chance to play the number one team in the country on a neutral gym, we're excited about it,'' McCrae said.
Martin said his team isn't ready to go home any time soon.
“We didn't come to Atlanta to win one game,'' the third year Vols coach 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.' ''
Martin won't get an argument from South Carolina Coach Frank Martin. He is a believer in the Vols after getting run by them.
“I told our assistants (Thursday) night that I think they're playing better than any one in our league right now,'' Martin said in a post-game interview session. “They're playing their best at the right time of the year.''
Tennessee can shock the basketball world if they can become the first SEC team to beat the Gators. If they should get it done, it will erase all doubts that the Vols belong in the Big Dance, no questions asked.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.