In a battle between double-digit seeds, No. 11 Tennessee proved that its first win was not a fluke thanks to an 83-63 victory over No. 14 Mercer on Sunday.
Jarnell Stokes led the way for the Volunteers with 17 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. He almost out-rebounded the entire Mercer team by himself, helping his squad finish with a 41-19 advantage on the boards.
Stokes put himself in the school's record books with his performance:
Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): 22nd double-double of season, tying Bernard King's school record for double-doubles in a season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2014
Nicole Auerbach of USA Today pointed out that he has been even better in Tennessee's three postseason games:
Jarnell Stokes is (obviously) very good. But he's been even better in the NCAA tourney. He hasn't had a game w/ less than 13 rebounds.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 23, 2014
Volunteers guard Josh Richardson also came up big with a career-high 26 points in the win, shooting 9-of-13 from the field.
After beating Duke, Mercer simply could not keep up with another power-conference opponent. Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports provided an explanation:
Proof that NCAA tourney is all about matchups: Mercer. Personnel, style useful vs. Duke, disaster vs. Ten. Vols slaughtering Bears in post.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 23, 2014
Of course, the Bears were also missing a key player in Monty Brown, who was out with a scary concussion that he suffered in the second round, as reported by Rachel Nichols of Turner Sports:
Mercer C Monty Brown will miss Bears' game vs Tenn due to concussion suffered vs Duke. Staying in dark room; doesn't remember game at all.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 22, 2014
While Brown only averaged about 10 minutes per game, his 6'11" frame could have seriously helped in this matchup.
From the very start of the game, Tennessee clearly established itself as the more physical team. The Volunteers got off to an 8-0 start, although Mercer tied it up at 10 thanks to some big three-point shots.
Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com broke down the strategies for each team early on:
Mercer playing plenty of zone (smart against Tennessee), Tennessee playing plenty of four guards (smart against Mercer).— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) March 23, 2014
Unfortunately for Mercer, the zone did not help, as it led to Tennessee gaining an incredible advantage on the offensive boards. Then again, Mercer didn't fare much better on the other end of the court, as noted by Joedy McCreary of The Associated Press:
That rebound that set up Thomas' 3 was Mercer's 1st offensive board. Took 9 1/2 minutes to get it.— Joedy McCreary (@JoedyAP) March 23, 2014
By halftime, the difference between the two squads was clear, as noted by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:
Tennessee has got every loose ball this half. Every one. And it leads 42-27. Mercer can't rebound with the Vols.— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) March 23, 2014
Tennessee went into intermission with a 24-4 rebounding advantage, which led to the 15-point lead. The physical play also helped give the Volunteers 10 free-throw attempts compared to zero for the Bears.
Wes Rucker of 247Sports joked about the offensive strategy with Josh Richardson, who led the way with 16 points at halftime:
#Vols are 1) getting the ball to Josh Richardson, and 2) getting out of the way.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) March 23, 2014
In the second half, Antonio Barton took over from the outside, giving the Volunteers a needed boost that has often led to success this season:
Entering tonight, Tennessee was 8-0 when Antonio Barton made at least three 3-pointers. He is 3-of-5 from long range thus far.— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) March 23, 2014
Barton finished with 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from three-point range in one of his better games of the season.
Mercer hung around, but it could never cut the deficit to single digits in the second half. The Bears eventually fell further behind and ended up losing by 20 points.
This game was actually a postseason rematch from last year's NIT, where Mercer came away with a 75-67 road victory. For this reason, Tennessee was not surprised to see the Bears make a run this time around.
Richardson explained as much before the game, via Michael A. Lough of The Macon Telegraph:
A team so disciplined as Mercer and experienced, (it) didn’t surprise me very much. I mean, I remember last year, they definitely executed their plays against us very well and we didn’t match their intensity.
We weren’t very disciplined in the game, and they came in our house and whupped us, so we can’t let that happen again this year.
Obviously, Tennessee was more prepared for Mercer this time around and came with a lot more intensity to ensure the victory.
Gary Parrish of CBS Sports joked about the fans now loving a coach that was on the hot seat just a week ago:
How about Tennessee in the Sweet 16? Now UT fans are gonna end up having to start a petition to get Cuonzo Martin a raise and extension.— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) March 24, 2014
Tennessee fans were not happy with Cuonzo Martin when the team faded into the NIT discussion in mid-February. But Stokes admitted that the loss to Texas A&M turned the season around:
Stokes: the loss at Texas A&M really brought us together. We learned we had to play as a team.— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) March 24, 2014
Since then, the Volunteers have won eight of their past nine and are still alive in the NCAA tournament.
How far will Tennessee advance?
The squad will advance to the Sweet 16 to play No. 2 seed Michigan. The Wolverines were able to deal with another strong frontcourt in Texas in the previous round, but they did it by shooting 14-of-28 from three-point range. Replicating that will be no small task.
Still, the Big Ten regular-season champs have plenty of talent in the backcourt and should be able to score a lot of points regardless of who is playing defense.
If the Volunteers are able to get to the Elite Eight, they will face the winner of another classic battle between Louisville and Kentucky.
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