ATLANTA - Though the weather outside the Georgia Dome was Spring-like, inside No. 13 South Carolina started cold, stayed cold and left with a 59-44 loss to No. 4 Tennessee in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, the 14th loss to the Volunteers in a row.
Playing their third game in as many days, the Gamecocks (14-20) came out missing their first eight shots and had just two points in the first 9:52 of the half as Tennessee built an early 10-point lead. South Carolina was just 1-of-13 shooting before Brent Williams hit a 3-pointer to make it 12-5 at the 11:08 mark, but the hole was dug as Tenessee's Jarnell Stokes had his way inside, eating Gamecock defenders for snacks as he tallied 12 first-half points before finishing with a game-high 22 points and 15 rebounds. It was Stokes' sixth 20-point, 10-rebound performance of the year.
The Gamecocks did settle down to whittle the double-digit lead to just four with 5:51 to play in the first half, but a 10-4 run to close out the half sent the Volunteers (21-11) to the locker room with a comfortable 10-point advantage at 28-18. For the half, USC shot 25.9 percent on 7-of-27 shooting, including 3-for-10 from 3-point range.
The second half was no different. USC came out shooting 2-of-11 while Tennessee's Stokes and Jordan McRae took over. When Stokes wasn't scoring inside, McRae was driving the lane or burying a jumper to finish with 14 points.
How difficult was the offensive going for South Carolina? No Gamecock scored in double digits - Williams was USC's top scorer with 9 - and Tennessee never trailed. The 44 points were a season-low for South Carolina.
"Their perimeter size (makes them tough)," said Martin, whose record at the SEC Tournament evened at 2-2. "If you would have said to me, 'Frank, which team would you rather not play in the SEC Tournament, I'd have said, 'Tennessee.'
"Not taking anything away from Florida or Kentucky, it's just their perimeter size really really bothers us. We got some good shots; we must have missed seven, eight shots from two feet and in. You don't make those, you start depending on perimeter shots."
Martin said Williams' wasn't able to get free against a Tennessee team with length to spare.
"They put McRae and Richardson on Brent, and they're almost a foot taller than him," Martin said. "They just chased him around, then when he does get separation they run him off the line, they don't accept him getting open shots.
"We still got 15 offensive rebounds, but we couldn't convert. We couldn't score inside today, and when you can't score inside, it's hard to win."
USC went to the free-throw line a season-low 10 times. Even though the Gamecocks were 8-of-10 shooting them, it was too few to make a difference.
"They're long, so you have to drive them, and we couldn't convert any fouls," Martin said. "We have to get to the foul line, and we didn't do that today. That's because Tennessee's size on the perimeter makes it hard to score."
Held scoreless in the first half and playing in foul trouble most of the second, Sindarius Thornwell finished with just seven points.
"It was tough on us playing our third game in a row," Thornwell said. "We just didn't have any energy to get things going, that oomph, and it hurt us against a good Tennessee team.
"(The foul trouble was) frustrating not being out there to help my team. I tried my best to stay out of foul trouble, but it's real frustrating sitting on the bench for a long time trying to get going. I just tried to sit on the sidelines and cheer my team."
For Martin, the positives remain from a two-game SEC Tournament run in which they were the underdogs each time and an effort against Tennessee he was happy with.
"I'm proud of my guys," Martin said. "We went into (Tennessee's) building a month ago and got treated like a red-headed stepchild. Today we fought. We just didn't have the oomph we needed to defeat this kind of an opponent on a day that we didn't make shots."