RALEIGH, N.C. - Perhaps Josh Richardson wishes every game he played was in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee's junior guard is known more for his defensive prowess, but he's been an offensive force during the Volunteers' run to the tournament's second weekend.
The latest and best performance came on Sunday, when Richardson poured in a career-high 26 points to lead 11th-seeded Tennessee past 14th-seeded Mercer and into the Sweet 16 with an 83-63 win at PNC Arena.
"I was getting open looks, and I was hitting," Richardson said after shooting 9-of-13 from the field and 6-of-9 at the free-throw line, "And then I started asserting myself a little bit more once they started falling.
"I've got a lot of confidence," he added. "I went through a little slump this season, but I've been in the gym a lot more lately. I feel like the goal's getting wider and wider every game. I just keep seeing holes, and I keep taking [shots] that I wasn't taking earlier this year."
It seems like so long ago, but Richardson actually missed all five shots he took in the first half of Tennessee's overtime win against Iowa in the "First Four" game in Dayton last Wednesday night.
He would go on to score 17 points in that game, including a stretch where he kept Tennessee in the game midway through the second half, and added 15 points in Friday's rout of Massachusetts in Raleigh.
Since that 0-of-5 half, Richardson is 20-of-28 from the field.
"Josh has been huge," teammate Jordan McRae said. "What Josh did today was amazing. Just to watch him do that, to pick up the slack for people who weren't doing that well, that's huge.
"Josh is growing. He's growing every day. It's just something that we expect out of Josh, and for Josh to do it on the biggest stage in basketball, it's huge."
The athletic 6-foot-6 Oklahoma native -- who Tennessee nabbed late in the recruiting process after Cuonzo Martin was hired as coach in 2011 -- has continued to play well defensively, too.
He forced Iowa's leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble into a 3-of-15 shooting night and helped quiet UMass point guard Chaz Williams to only 12 points.
On Sunday, Mercer point guard Langston Hall, the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year, finished with 15 points, but he was just 1-of-6 from the field at halftime.
"We'll see if he's consistent with it 10 to 15 games where he's scoring like that," Martin said. "He's just a guy that his shots were falling, so he stayed aggressive. I think sometimes he gets consumed with his challenges on the defensive side of the ball and shutting guys down. He just made his shots and was assertive.
"He can score the ball. He can shoot pull-ups, he can make free throws; but even if he's not scoring at this level, his leadership has really picked up the last eight or nine games. He's done a great job with his leadership skills, and his defense has gone to another level."
His offense was at another level during Sunday's first half.
With the Vols leading 14-10, Richardson hit a 3 from the top of the key, hit a tough runner in the lane and completed the three-point play and scored at the rim in transition before hitting a baseline jumper and another 3.
When he was done, Richardson had 16 of Tennessee's first 29 points and the Vols led 29-18.
"Richardson was MVP of the world tonight," Bears coach Bob Hoffman said.
"He was a special player tonight and he hit every shot he took, it seemed."
Asked where Tennessee would be in the NCAA tournament without Richardson, Jeronne Maymon perhaps said it best.
"We'd been at home," said the senior forward, "watching the game."
Instead, the Vols have at least one more to play.
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