RALEIGH — The Tennessee Volunteers are moving on in the NCAA tournament, headed to the Round of 16.
The Mercer Bears are headed back to Georgia, their season over, but they’ll always have Duke.
The Vols, seeded 11th in the Midwest Region, raced past the 14th-seeded Bears 83-63 Sunday at PNC Arena, serving notice that they might be the biggest upstart team in the tournament.
OK, there’s Dayton. But Tennessee (24-12) will go to Indianapolis to face Michigan having won eight of its past nine games.
“There’s a lot of resiliency as a team, a lot of fight, tremendous composure,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said after the third-round victory. “It’s amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes in the course of the season. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way but continued to work hard and stay together and found a way to win games.”
One bump was a 65-58 loss to N.C. State early in the season in which the Vols trailed by 17 at the half. They also took some lumps in the SEC.
But only Florida has beaten the Vols since late February. They played their way into the NCAA’s field of 68 with a 78-65 overtime win against Iowa in the first round, blasted UMass 86-67 Friday and never trailed against the Bears.
Jarnell Stokes, a man in the middle at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, had 17 points and 18 rebounds – the junior’s 22nd double-double of the season, tying the school record set by Bernard King. But junior guard Josh Richardson had a career-high 26 points and Antonio Barton finished with 18.
The Vols jumped to an 8-0 lead, never trailed and built a 42-27 halftime cushion. They had a 24-4 rebounding edge in the first half.
“They’ve got the biggest men in America,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “Wow. They kept coming at us. We regrouped, but to get beat 24-4 in a half … your chances of winning are not very good.”
The Bears were the talk of the tournament Friday after knocking off third-seeded Duke 78-71. It was the school’s first NCAA victory and one that will be cherished.
“We showed the world what we’ve got, to take it to Duke,” Mercer senior Bud Thomas said.
But one downside to the upset was losing reserve center Monty Brown to a concussion during the game. The 6-11 senior was not able to play Sunday.
“It would have been good to have another big body,” Hoffman said.
The Vols’ first possession of the second half was telling. The Bears double-teamed Stokes on the low block and Stokes passed to Richardson in the far corner for a 3-pointer. Richardson missed, but Stokes muscled to the basket for the offensive rebound and a putback for a 44-27 lead.
The Bears, loaded with seniors, got no closer than 11 points in the second half, although their large fan section kept urging them on. The Atlantic Sun champions got 15 points from Langston Hall and kept pushing.
But the Vols finished it off with ease, earning their fourth Sweet 16 trip since 2007 and first since 2010.
Richardson’s previous high this season was a 20-point game in a 87-52 rout of Virginia. But the Vols’ best on-ball defender kicked in nine of 13 shots Sunday while Barton also hurt the Bears from the perimeter and Jordan McRae had 14 points.
“Once I hit the first couple I became more assertive on offense,” Richardson said.
But the Vols were assertive the full 40 minutes. They never reached the pressure point.
Now, it’s off to Indianapolis.
“This is a surreal feeling,” Stokes said, “When Coach Martin and these guys started playing and I came here, Tennessee basketball was dead. Now to be back in the Sweet 16 is a great feeling.”