RALEIGH – The uprising began more than an hour before tip-off. More than 500 Mercer students poured out of 10 buses, sprinting through a chilly mist toward PNC Arena. The Mercer students rode 420 miles to see their school’s historical march through March.
As they gathered on stairs in front of PNC Arena before entering, they erupted into a hearty chant that summed up the mood: “I believe that we will win.”
Instead, Mercer fans face a long ride home, as Tennessee dominated them wire-to-wire, 83-63, in one of the tournament’s most anti-climactic games.
No. 11 Tennessee charges into to the Round of 16, where they’ll face No. 2 Michigan on Friday night. Tennessee has won eight of its past nine games, with the lone defeat coming against Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals, a game that they led at halftime.
The tenor of Tennessee’s victory was nearly as impressive as the margin of victory, as the Vols manhandled Mercer in the paint. Six-foot-8 forward Jarnell Stokes finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds. Mercer’s entire team finished with 19 rebounds.
Mercer entered the game holding an advantage in crowd and March mojo. But what the Bears lacked was size and strength, as Tennessee outmuscled them, snagging offensive rebounds on 14 of its first 17 misses. The Volunteers dominated the clock and never gave Mercer a chance to claw back into the game.
The Vols were one of the last four teams to enter the NCAA tournament, but they’re playing as well as anyone since it started. This marks their third double-digit win. The Vols start five upperclassmen and will pose a match-up problem in the low post for Michigan, with the 260-pound Stokes bulldozing his way through the paint. Stokes has averaged 15 rebounds a game in the NCAA tournament games.
The convincing victory has drastically altered two of the dominant story lines in the SEC heading into the NCAA tournament. The SEC is now 7-0 in NCAA tournament play, a surprising start for a league dogged by criticism for its ineptitude this season. Florida cruised into the Sweet 16 and Kentucky upset previously undefeated Wichita State to get there, setting up Tennessee’s chance to keep the league undefeated. (Tennessee fans didn’t chant SEC at the end of the game, however.)
The run to the Sweet 16 also makes the fan criticism of Coach Cuonzo Martin laughable, as Vols supporters had begun petitions to try to bring back Bruce Pearl. Since that flap, Pearl went to Auburn and now Tennessee is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010.
Mercer entered the game without one of its key players, as reserve center Monty Brown suffered a concussion against Duke and couldn’t play. Brown averaged just 4.5 points per game, but his 6-11 and 250-pound presence would have helped counter Tennessee’s distinct size advantage. That made Mercer starting center Daniel Coursey, who checks in at a lean 6-10 and 220 pounds, the most important player on the court for Mercer. He flailed in the paint all game, struggling to catch the ball and finishing with three rebounds in 29 minutes.
Tennessee exploited its size mismatch to jump out to a 42-27 halftime lead, closing the half on an 8-2 run. The first-half statistics were staggering in Tennessee’s favor, as the Vols took 10 free throws to Mercer’s 0 and seemingly snagged every loose ball. Mercer’s first free throw attempt didn’t come until 9:20 remained in the second half.
Tennessee shot 50 percent in the first half (15-30), and it rebounded 12 of those 15 misses. The Vols came in showing no signs of fatigue, jumping out to a 7-0 lead. Mercer’s first three possessions included an intercepted pass for a lay-up, a shot clock violation and a missed bunny.
The bigger, stronger and wire-to-wire better team advanced to the Sweet 16. Mercer’s run ended, and those will be a long 420 miles home. [si_video id="video_0EAEF681-C684-EB08-CF44-F138116F5F18" height="500"]