KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's basketball team took the Thompson-Boling Arena floor on Wednesday night for pregame warmups looking like it wanted to be somewhere else.
The team in black had other ideas.
The Volunteers were sent packing from the National Invitation Tournament by Mercer, the energized Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season champion carving up the Volunteers' disinterested defense in a 75-67 first-round win.
"It's a great experience for us to be in the NIT," coach Bob Hoffman said after his Bears advanced to play at BYU in the second round. "We're blessed to be here. Obviously, just like everybody else, we want to be in the NCAA tournament."
The Vols' hangover of not being there clearly still lingered.
"I don't think we came out expecting to lose," Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said after scoring 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. "They played very hard, and their bench was into it, and they played this game like it was the end of their lives. I don't feel like we played as hard as we needed to to win the game against a team like this."
The Bears, who won at Florida State and Alabama in December, shot 54 percent in the first half and went into halftime with a 34-28 lead thanks to a late 10-1 run. Even when the hosts pulled to within four points twice in the second half, Mercer answered. Jakob Gallon hit two 3s from the top of the key in one 7-3 spurt, and Travis Smith, who scored 25 points, finished off the killer 6-0 run with a driving bank shot that put the Bears up 56-46 with 6:41 remaining.
"I really felt like we came out slow," said Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae, who scored seven points on 3-of-14 shooting. "They just came out with a ton of energy. We expected that, [but] even when we closed the game, they made big shot after big shot, and that's a great job by them.
"You can't take away any credit from their team."
Tennessee surrendered 34 points in the paint and couldn't contain Mercer big man Daniel Coursey, who scored 15 points and made all seven of his shots in only 19 foul-plagued minutes.
"Sometimes you can feel it," second-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of his team's hangover from missing the NCAA tournament. "It's hard to pinpoint one thing. It's not like a guy's out there like, 'I'm going to try to miss a shot,' or 'I'm going to try not to defend.'
"It almost seems like you don't have your legs up under you, so to speak."
Mercer's set-heavy precision offense, powered by point guard Langston Hall (16 points and seven assists), made a challenging task even trickier. The Bears lost the Atlantic Sun tournament final to Florida Gulf Coast eight days before Selection Sunday. The 8,200-student university from Macon, Ga., brought a noisy group of fans, its band and cheerleaders.
A season after winning the Collegeinsider.com tournament, Mercer made its first NIT appearance and was happy to have a chance at taking down a big name in college basketball's secondary postseason tournament, while the Vols still were pondering their plight of missing the NCAA tournament after winning nine of 11 games entering Selection Sunday.
"There's a tendency for that to happen for your guys [because] it's emotionally taxing," Martin said. "You felt like you were right there. It takes a lot out of you as a player.
"The guys came out and put forth an effort, but it drains you, and I understand it's a tough thing to deal with."
Hangover or not, Tennessee was outplayed on its home floor in a season-ending loss.
"It's tough to get up for a game like that, but we can't blame it on that," Vols guard Josh Richardson said. "We've got to be able to come out and play hard, just like every other day. We didn't do that."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...