RALEIGH — How complete was Tennessee’s domination of the backboards in the first half of its 83-63 victory over Mercer in the third round of the NCAA tournament Sunday night?
Consider this: The Volunteers outrebounded the Bears 24-4. They grabbed 12 of Mercer’s 13 misses, and 12 of their own 16. They were so dominant that Tennessee point guard Alonzo Barton controlled the offensive rebound of a 3-point miss while lying on his back.
Of the four rebounds Mercer managed to snag in the half, only one was grabbed by a front-court player, reserve center T.J. Hallice. The others were long rebounds run down by guards.
“Tennessee was really good tonight,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “They came after us from the beginning.”
He added later, “They’ve got the biggest men in America (6-foot-8, 260-pounders Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon). They just kept coming at us. Monty (Woods) would have helped us. It made it tough to overcome.”
Woods, a 6-11, 250-pound reserve, did not play for Mercer after suffering a concussion during Friday’s victory over Duke.
“When you get beat 24-4 in a half on the glass, your chances of winning are not very good,” Hoffman said.
“As a team, we’ve been doing that all year,” said Stokes, who finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds, a school record for an NCAA tournament game. “I feel like now that it’s the NCAA tournament, it’s getting more attention. We always feel like we control the boards. That’s one thing that I always go into the game trying to make my imprint on.”
Small ball: Although Tennessee’s bulk inside carried the day, it was a four-guard alignment teamed with Stokes that sparked the Volunteers early. They surged from a 10-10 tie to run off seven straight points over a five-minute span and never trailed again.
“We’ll play four guards,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who shuttled in six during that sequence to match down against the smaller Bears. “When most teams have two traditional bigs, we’ll stay with our bigs. But if they go small in a situation, then we’ll go to four guards.
“What it does is allow Jarnell and Jeronne to post up, make plays and isolate the post so now if you help off, you got four perimeter guys who can make shots, make plays off the dribble.”
The chief beneficiary was junior guard Josh Richardson, who scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in the first half.
No Cinderella story: As a 14th seed and the lowest surviving seed of the second round, Mercer was the obvious Cinderella candidate. But what about Tennessee? The 11th-seeded Volunteers took out sixth-seeded Massachusetts in the previous round. Does the slipper fit them?
Not according to Maymon.
“There isn’t really no story here,” he insisted. “We’re supposed to be here. We got one of the best teams in the nation. We just come out and play like it. We’re one of 16 still standing.”
Back in the regionals: Tennessee will make its fourth trip to the regional semifinals in the last eight years, having done so in 2007, 2008 and 2010. This is the first time under Martin, in his third year with the Volunteers.
“It’s a surreal feeling, because I said when Coach Martin and these guys started playing and myself came here, Tennessee basketball was dead. And now, to be back in the Sweet 16, it’s a great feeling.”
Payback time: Hard to believe, but Atlantic Sun member Mercer (which is moving to the Southern Conference this summer) leads the all-time series with Tennessee 4-2. Included is last year’s 65-57 victory at Knoxville, Tenn., in the first round of the NIT, which probably helped the Volunteers stay focused.
“I think that’s because last time we played them, we played them really tough,” Mercer point guard Langston Hall said. “They didn’t do a great job on ball screens. This time they did an amazing job. They were there, had active hands.”
Hall singled out the 6-6 Richardson especially. “He’s just very long and athletic, and he never takes a play off on defense,” he said. “He’s really a good defender, probably one of the best defenders that’s guarded me all year.”
Home cooking: Tennessee’s 6-10 junior center Rawane “Pops” Ndiaye played the final minute for the Volunteers and scored their last field goal on a short hook.
Ndiaye, whose family is from Senegal, makes his home in Raleigh, where he attended Body of Christ Academy. He was born in Manhattan, grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and later attended Indian Hills Community College in Iowa.