RALEIGH, N.C. — Tennessee began the NCAA tournament in the “First Four.”
Now the Volunteers are headed to the Sweet 16.
Two stops and three games later, Tennessee will play in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the seventh time overall and fourth time in eight years after fighting off a valiant effort by 14th-seeded Mercer in a 83-63 win at PNC Arena on Sunday evening.
The 11th-seeded Vols (24-12) will meet second-seeded Big Ten regular season champion Michigan in the Midwest Region semifinals at LucasOil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday night. Fourth-seeded Louisville will face in-state rival Kentucky, which knocked off unbeaten Wichita State earlier Sunday in St. Louis.
Under third-year coach Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee completed an impressive late-season run that’s seen the Vols win eight of their last nine games.
Josh Richardson, the hero of that “First Four” overtime win against Iowa on Wednesday night in Dayton, scored a career-high 26 points, Memphis transfer Antonio added 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from 3-point range and Jarnell Stokes provided the inside punch with 17 points and 18 rebounds.
After notching the biggest upset of the tournament against third-seeded Duke on Friday, the Bears brought 10 bus loads of students from its Macon, Ga., campus. Mercer certainly had more fans than the 2,281 it averaged in its home games this season.
The Bears, who will join the Southern Conference next season, were trying to become the first No. 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16 since UT Chattanooga beat Georgia and Illinois in 1997.
Yet Tennessee wasn’t about to allow the Atlantic Sun Conference champions to end their season like it did last season, when Mercer won 75-67 in Knoxville in the first round of National Invitation Tournament.
After taking a 15-point lead into halftime and stretching that advantage to 19 points early in the second half, the Vols never allowed Mercer to get closer than 11 points and finished off the game by shooting 23-of-26 at the free-throw line despite going more than five minutes without a field goal.
Tennessee forced Mercer coach Bob Hoffman to burn a timeout 1:50 into the game after jumping out to a 7-0 lead on a steal-and-layup by Barton and two baskets by Stokes, including a two-handed running slam off a feed from Richardson in transition.
The Bears hit two 3-pointers and got a basket in the post from 6-foot-10 center Daniel Coursey, who was 7-of-7 in Mercer’s NIT win last season, over the 6-foot-8 Stokes.
With the game tied at 10, Richardson began to take over.
The junior from Oklahoma hit a 3 from atop the key, hit a tough runner in the lane and completed the three-point play and scored at the rim in transition before hitting two jumpers, one from the baseline and a 3 from the wing.
He scored 16 of Tennessee’s first 29 points, and the Vols led by 11.
Stokes scored in the paint to push Tennessee’s lead to 38-25, and Barton hit a wide open Jeronne Maymon for a layup after a mad scramble that saw the Vols come up with a couple of 50-50 balls.
On Mercer’s last possession of the first half, Tennessee forced a shot clock violation, and the Vols’ bench, including Martin, erupted in approval as they took a 42-27 lead into the break.
Tennessee shot 50 percent in the first half and held big advantages in paint scoring (22-10) and rebounding (24-4) against the Bears, who stayed in the game by shooting 5-of-9 from 3-point range.
With a rebound and putback on Tennessee’s first possession of the second half, Stokes secured his 22nd double-double of the season to tie the single-season mark set by Vols legend Bernard King during the 1976-77 season.
Antonio Barton hit back-to-back jumpers, the second a 3, to give Tennessee its largest lead of the game at 19 points (51-32) with 16:40 to go, but Anthony White Jr., scoreless in the first half, scored 11 quick points as Mercer hit seven of its first 11 shots to stay in the game.
The Bears got into the bonus midway through the second half and continued to settle into its efficient offense, but for every Mercer score, the Vols seemed to hit a shot to answer.
White scored to cut Mercer’s deficit to 53-41, but Jordan McRae hit a leaner and Barton got a friendly roll on a 3 from the corner to answer.
Barton hit again from long range after Mercer cut it to 13, and after Langston Hall, the Atlantic Sun player of the year, hit a 3 to make 65-52 with around seven minutes left, Richardson hit a jumper to give him 20 points and tie his previous career high, which he last hit in the 35-point rout of eventual ACC champion Virginia in December.
Hall hit a stepback jumper from the baseline to pull the Bears to within 72-61 with 2:28 left, but Mercer got no closer.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...