published Monday, March 24th, 2014

Tennessee Vols beat Mercer for trip to Sweet 16

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) shoots against Mercer during their NCAA basketball third-round tournament game, Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Raleigh.
Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) shoots against Mercer during their NCAA basketball third-round tournament game, Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Raleigh.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Tennessee guard Jordan McRae dunks the ball against Mercer during the second half of their NCAA college basketball third-round tournament game on Sunday in Raleigh.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Minutes after his team continued its NCAA tournament run, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin grabbed his iPhone and gathered his team, assistant coaches and equipment managers around him in the Volunteers' locker room.

Snap, post, tweet.

Martin's Vols certainly took the long road in his third season, but there's no denying where it's headed now.

Tennessee went from 7-7 in the SEC to the NCAA tournament's "First Four" in Dayton and now to the Sweet 16 after the 11th-seeded Vols fought off a valiant effort from upset-minded Mercer in an 83-63 win at PNC Arena on Sunday night.

"It hasn't hit me yet," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said in the locker room after Tennessee clinched just its seventh trip to the round of 16. "I'm just trying to fight back tears being so happy for this team. I don't think any team has been through as much as we have. For us to get this win, for the program, for the fans, for us, for Coach Martin -- it's huge.

"Just knowing that only 16 teams are playing right now in America, and the Tennessee Vols are one of them, a team that lost to [Texas] A&M twice, for us to be last team 16 teams in America, it just sounds good. I could say it all day."

A little more than four weeks ago, the 11th-seeded Vols (24-12) were losing for the second time to the Aggies.

On Friday night, they'll face second-seeded Michigan in Indianapolis, where Louisville and Kentucky also will meet in the Midwest Region semifinals.

"We had rocky times this season, so I could see where the doubt comes from, but it's all coming together now," Josh Richardson said after scoring a career-high 26 points.

"It makes it a lot sweeter. To come from the play-in game, with how we've played, we've proved ourselves. We've still got to some work to do."

Mercer (27-9), the 14th-seeded Atlantic Sun Conference champions who knocked out Duke on Friday, made Tennessee work for Sunday's victory, but Richardson helped the Vols build a 15-point halftime lead and finished the first half by forcing a shot clock violation that caused the normally stoic Martin to show some fire.

"He ran over their and shook my hand and slapped my hand," point guard Antonio Barton said. "It's just a beautiful sight when everybody's just playing defense like that, and we're so passionate, from our managers up to our coaches, to the players -- everybody's just passionate about one defensive play."

Tennessee pushed that advantage to 19 points early in the second half and never allowed Mercer to get closer than 11 points. The Vols shot 49 percent from the field, made 23 of 26 free throws, outscored the smaller Bears 36-24 in the paint and dominated the rebounding margin 41-19.

After winning four straight to close the regular season and splitting two games in the SEC tournament, Tennessee has won its three NCAA tournament games by 13 in overtime against Iowa, by 19 against Massachusetts and by 20 on Sunday.

"It's amazing to see these guys grow right before my eyes through the course of a season," Martin said. "They're fun to be around. They took a lot of lumps and bumps along the way, but they continued to work hard and continued to stay together."

Many of the players were crediting Martin for his part in keeping the Vols together through a disappointing and frustrating regular season that once appeared destined in a third straight season without an NCAA tournament trip.

"He's one guy who's not gonna change for anything, even though he heard all the bad stuff being said about him and about the team," said Barton, the Memphis transfer who scored 18 points and hit four 3s.

"He came to practice with the same mentality as day one, and he was the main one who told us if we just lock in and just come together as a team and trust each other, that we can win it all."

Tennessee's season might have folded after that overtime loss in College Station on Feb. 22, but instead Martin got his team to peak at the best possible time, even though it also might have come at the last possible second.

"My approach is always consistent," he said. "It was just really making our guys understand and believe. It's a true blessing to be one of the last 16 teams standing in all of college basketball.

"It's amazing how we say the expectations are this and that. Well, it wasn't a ranked team. It wasn't a team that was picked first in the SEC, but that's amazing, I guess whatever the criticism is.

"Luckily for our guys, they stayed the course, didn't get caught up in all the negativity and continued to get better, not only as basketball players, but as men. That's probably the biggest thing that I'm proud of. Their love for each other has really grown, so it's fun to see that and fun to see them grow."

McRae said he's seen a slight change in Martin during Tennessee's tournament run.

"He's just been fired up the whole time," the senior said. "This whole experience, he's been loose. Last night he showed us video of [wrestler] Stone Cold Steve Austin stunning a whole lot of people [with a wrestling move the team has adopted as its own]. We're having fun."

That fun will continue for at least a little while longer.

"This feels good," Barton said. "We're not settled, though. We're never satisfied. This is a good feeling to be here, but we're trying to go to the championship. We're gonna lock in for our game, and we're just gonna get the job done."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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