RALEIGH, N.C. – On Selection Sunday, the 11th seeded Vols were one of the last teams to make the field as an at-large bid.
Now, after a convincing 86-67 win over No. 6 seed UMass on Friday afternoon in Raleigh, the Vols (23-12) are headed to the Round of 32 for an unlikely matchup against No. 14 seed Mercer, which stunned No. 3 Duke just moments before Tennessee took the floor.
Outside of a few nervous moments, the Vols pounded the higher-seeded Minutemen, getting into the lane with ease and taking advantage of UMass’s (24-9) mistakes, on their way to the second-largest margin of victory in the school’s NCAA tournament history.
“Just happy with the way our guys performed today,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who moved to 2-0 as a head coach in the NCAA tournament. “Thought we got out the gates and played well on both end of the floor. Played together. Defended well. We set our tone early, a physical tone without fouling. Tried to keep those guys out of the lane.”
Forward Jarnell Stokes had a career-high 26 points, breaking his previous career high set against the Minutemen last year. Stokes also pulled down 14 rebounds, giving him his 21st double-double of the season. Stokes scored 24 points last year against UMass in an 83-69 victory for the Vols.
He wasn’t looking to match that scoring output on Friday. He just wanted to help Tennessee continue to defend at a high level like it has done during its run of seven wins in eight games. And helping UT do it again against the Minutemen, led to opportunities on the other end.
“Well, coming into this game, my mindset wasn’t to score the ball,” said Stokes. “I was somewhat worried about their point guard, Chaz Williams, getting into the lane. I’m just looking at the stat sheet – we held him under his career averages the entire game. So I wanted to play very good ball screen defense, but it made this a fast-break game so I got a lot of points just off of fast breaks and getting to the foul line.”
The Vols held Williams, the Minutemen’s leading scorer and one of the top passers in the nation, in check. Mixing in a 1-3-1 zone at times and throwing different defenders at him throughout the course of the game, he scored just 12 points and had an even assists/turnovers ratio with five each.
“He’s a good ballplayer,” said Martin. “We wanted to corral him and oppose him making passes. They had to make long 3s and we would challenge the 3-point shot. He’s not easy to defend because he’s so fast.”
The Vols started well with an early 12-8 lead and then found another gear in the coming moments, expanding their lead to 32-16 by the 4:54 mark and wrapping up the first half with a Jordan McRae 3-pointer that gave them a 41-22 advantage at the break.
Though many look at playing in the ‘First Four’ like UT did in Dayton on Wednesday night as a negative, perhaps it was a positive for Tennessee in this situation. Confident after their overtime victory over Iowa, the Vols looked like the veteran NCAA tournament squad early.
“I think playing against a good team like Iowa, especially, before we get to the Round of 64, is great for us,” said Tennessee guard Josh Richardson. “I think it also gave us a chance to get our legs under us, get used to playing with the new balls on the new courts. I think it definitely worked to our advantage.”
UMass surged at the beginning of the second half, cutting UT’s lead down to 10 with just over 14 minutes left in the contest. But UT never let it get any more interesting, responding with a 17-6 spurt of its own to build the lead back to 63-42 with under 10 minutes remaining. The Minutemen never got it within single digits again.
Now the Vols move on to an unlikely, bracket-busting Round of 32 game against the Mercer Bears, the Atlantic Sun champions. It’s a rematch of last year’s first-round NIT matchup between the Vols and Bears, a game Tennessee lost 75-67.
On the surface, a matchup against Mercer sounds more enticing than facing off against a traditional power such as Duke. But Martin doesn’t see it that way. In an era of Cinderella Stories in the Big Dance, the Vols see the Bears as an equally-capable opponent.
“Our guys are familiar with them,” said Martin. “It wasn’t a case of we’d rather play Duke. It wasn’t like that. We don’t take anybody for granted. Two talented teams, two evenly-matched teams.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga