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:
Nicole Auerbach of USA Today pointed out that he has been even better in Tennessee's three postseason games:
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:
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:
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:
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:
By halftime, the difference between the two squads was clear, as noted by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Since then, the Volunteers have won eight of their past nine and are still alive in the NCAA tournament.
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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