RALEIGH, N.C. – By the end of Sunday evening there will only be 16 teams still alive in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee is one of them.
The No. 11 seed Vols finished off their improbable and impressive run through Raleigh by knocking off No. 14 seed Mercer by a final of 83-63 to advance to the Sweet 16 for a date with No. 2 seed Michigan next Friday in Indianapolis.
The Vols celebrated accordingly. Coach Cuonzo Martin embraced athletics director Dave Hart on the court. Martin then tweeted a ‘selfie’ shot with the team celebrating that went viral on social media.
“You guys just missed the party we had,” said forward Jeronne Maymon as he spoke to reporters in the locker room following the game. “It was surprising, I didn’t think Coach Martin would do that. It was really exciting and we’re happy we won the game.”
After barely escaping a First Four matchup against Iowa on Wednesday night, the Vols stormed into Raleigh and knocked off No. 6 seed UMass and Mercer by a combined margin of 39 points, recording two of the top three largest margins of victory in school NCAA tournament history.
Like UT’s blowout win over the Minutemen on Friday afternoon, Sunday evening’s game was never in serious doubt.
“Very proud of this team,” said Martin. “Just a lot of resiliency as a team – a lot of fight. Tremendous composure. It's amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes through the course of a season, fun to be around. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way. Continue to work hard, continue to stay together, found a way to win games and be successful.”
The Vols, playing against a hostile Mercer crowd that brought 10 busloads of students from Macon, Ga., took that energy out of PNC Arena early by jumping out to an 8-0 start.
Though the Bears matched that run and briefly tied it at 8-8, Tennessee took the lead from there and never looked back. By the 3:10 mark of the first half, the Vols led 38-15 and then carried a 15-point advantage into the break.
UT quickly asserted itself around the bucket.
“We knew they were a little thin inside with [Mercer center Monty Brown] having a concussion,” said Maymon. “Hopefully he gets better, but we knew they were kind of thin so we tried to take advantage of that.”
That mission was accomplished. The Vols owned the glass with a 41-19 edge including an 18-7 edge on the offensive end. Jarnell Stokes, who recorded 13 points and 14 rebounds in last year’s NIT matchup against Mercer, again had his way. He scored 17 points and pulled down 18 rebounds, a new school NCAA tournament record.
“We’ve done that a lot this year,” said Stokes. “Me and Jeronne control the boards a lot. I think because it’s the NCAA tournament, people are starting to notice more. But we’ve always been great rebounders.”
And though the Bears never pulled the game within single digits in the second half, the Atlantic Sun champions would also never go completely away. Every time they got within approximately 12 points, the Vols had an answer either inside, from the perimeter or from the free-throw line, where they hit 88.5 percent of their attempts.
Guard Josh Richardson, who told reporters that he’s playing the best basketball of his career “or close to it” after the game, had 26 points in addition to another strong night on the defensive end. Point guard Antonio Barton added 18 points on 6 of 9 shooting from 3-point range. Jordan McRae scored 14.
“First half, I was just getting open looks and hitting them,” said Richardson, who is averaging 19.3 points per game in the tournament. "And then I just started asserting myself a little more when they started falling.”
“Our guards, like Josh, you saw he was hitting shots left and right and we all know what Jordan can do and then when [Barton] steps up, it’s a good night,” added Maymon. “I think it’s hard for anybody to beat us when we’re playing like that.”
The Vols will get to test that theory quickly. They will be tied for the lowest seed remaining in the tournament and will face last year’s national runner-up, Michigan, first. If they win that, the opponent will be last year’s champion, Louisville, or a Kentucky a team that has already defeated UT this year.
A team that almost didn’t make it to the tournament and then survived an overtime scare in its first matchup now has a chance to prove it belongs with the best of the best in the nation.
“Our guys, they stayed the course, didn't get caught up in the negativity and they continued to get better not only as basketball players, but as men,” Martins said. “That's the most important thing, that's probably the biggest thing I'm proud of and their love for each other has really grown as a unit. It's fun to see that, and it's fun to see them grow.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga