RALEIGH, N.C. – The Tennessee Volunteers are heading back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last eight years.
Tennessee, the 11 seed, stopped No. 14 Mercer, 83-63, on Sunday at PNC Arena to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in school history.
The Vols previously played in the fourth round in 1967, 1981, 2000, 2007, 2008 and 2010.
This was the fourth time in NCAA tournament history that a third-round game featured a No. 11 seed and a No. 14 seed.
Tennessee (24-12) will take on second-seed Michigan on Friday in a Midwest Regional semifinal in Indianapolis. The game will tip off at 7:15 p.m. and be televised by CBS, with Jim Nance and Greg Anthony handling the broadcast.
The Vols have won eight of their last nine by an average margin of victory of 20.9 points – they have a 17.3-point winning margin in three tournament games – and are now one the most dangerous teams still with a threat to knock off a higher-seeded team.
Junior Jarnell Stokes posted his Tennessee-record tying 22nd double-double this season with 17 points and 18 rebounds.
Stokes equaled the mark set by Hall of Famer Bernard King in 1976-77. Stokes also set the Vols' NCAA Tournament for rebounds in a game with 18, breaking his 2-day-old tournament record.
Stokes almost had as many rebounds as the entire Mercer team as the Bears were outrebounded as a team, 41-19. The Vols dominated the offensive glass, 18-7.
Junior Josh Richardson scored a career-high 26 points, 16 of which came in the first half, as the Vols avenged last year's 75-67 first-round loss to Mercer in last year's NIT in Knoxville, Tenn.
And the win kept the Southeastern Conference unbeaten in the NCAA tournament this spring. Kentucky and No. 1-ranked Florida are still alive as well. It's the first time since 2007 that three SEC teams reached the Sweet 16.
The SEC is the first conference to go 7-0 or better in the tournament entering the Sweet 16 since the Big East was 8-0 in 2003.
Senior Antonio Barton netted 18 points as he made 4-of-9 from 3-point range. The Vols are 9-0 when Barton makes three or more 3s
Senior Jordan McRae added 14 points.
The Vols picked up their 14th wire-to-wire victory including six of their last nine games.
Tennessee, now 31-3 under coach Cuonzo Martin when it scores 80 or more points, made just two field goals in the final six minutes but finished the game strong at the free-throw line.
Mercer was led by Langston Hall, who scored 15 points.
Tennessee bolted out to a 8-0 lead with tremendous play on both ends of the court. Barton stole the ball from Jakob Gallon and finished with a layup 20 seconds into the game.
Then the Vols forced a shot clock violation by Mercer and Stokes scored on a lay-up. Stokes then announced the Vols’ arrival with a monster two-handed slam dunk 100 seconds into the game. Mercer called timeout in an attempt to slow the Vols down.
Mercer scored its first points 3:09 into the game on an Ike Nwamu 3-pointer. The Bears tied the game at 8 and 10, but Tennessee regained the lead seconds later on a pair of Barton free throws and a baseline jam from McRae.
Stokes' tip-in with 5:06 left in the half gave the Vols their first double-figure lead at 31-20.
Tennessee took firm control of the game as the Vols made seven of eight shot attempts to grab a 13-point lead on Stokes' layup with three minutes left in the half, 38-25.
The Vols finished the half with a defensive stance that forced the Bears into their second shot clock violation.
Tennessee led 42-27 at intermission thanks to 16 first-half points from Richardson and a dominating performance on the glass, 24-4. Stokes hauled down nine rebounds to go with nine points.
In the second half Tennessee continued to maintain a lead of at least 11 points. Barton nailed three 3-pointers in the half as Mercer was unable to close the gap.
Mercer cut that margin to 11 on a 3-pointer by Langston Hall with 2:28 left in the game.
Tennessee went 23 of 16 from the foul line and in three tournament games have hit 72 of 87 attempts, an impressive 82.8 percentage.
The last time Tennessee and Michigan played was in the 2011 NCAA Tournament Second Round when the Wolverines ended Tennessee's season, 75-45.
Thomas 2-4 0-0 6, Gollon 2-5 2-2 7, Coursey 5-11 0-0 10, White Jr. 5-8 0-0 11, Hall 6-14, 0-1 15, Leonard 0-0 0-0 0, Canevari 0-0 0-0 0, Nwamu 3-6 5-6 12, Hallice 0-1 0-0 0, Moten 0-3 0-0 0, Bryan 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 24-53 7-9 73.
Stokes 6-14 5-5 17, Maymon 1-2 4-4 6, Richardson 9-13 6-9 26, Barton 6-12 2-2 18, McRae 4-12 6-6 14, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Ndiaye 1-1 0-0 2, Thompson 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Reese 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-55 23-26 83.
Halftime – Tennessee 42-27.
3-Point Goals – Mercer 8-22 (Hall 3-9, Thomas 2-4, Gollon 1-1, White Jr. 1-3, Nwamu 1-3, Moten 0-2), Tennessee 6-22 (Barton 4-9, Richardson 2-6, Moore 0-1, McRae 0-6).
Fouled Out – Gollon.
Rebounds – Mercer 19 (Nwamu 4), Tennessee 41 (Stokes 18).
Assists – Mercer 11 (Hall 6), Tennessee 15 (Stokes 5).
Total Fouls – Mercer 21, Tennessee 14.
Attendance – NA
MODERATOR: We are now ready to begin the Tennessee portion of the press conference. At this time, Coach Martin, could you please make an opening statement.
COACH MARTIN: Very proud of this team. Just a lot of resiliency as a team, a lot of fight. Tremendous composure. It's amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes through the course of a season. Fun to be around. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way. Continue to work hard, continue to stay together, found a way to win games and be successful.
In the midst of it, they've grown a true love for each other in the process. Just for me, happy as a coach to be a part of these guys' lives.
MODERATOR: At this time, we'll open the floor up for questions for the student athletes.
Q. Jarnell, you talked a couple times about when you came here, wanting to get the program back on track and to get to it a better place. What does this mean to go to the Sweet 16 and get the program there?
Jarnell Stokes: 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 now to be back in the Sweet 16, it's a great feeling.
I'm just looking forward to Michigan. I want to enjoy this win tonight, but Michigan is a very good team.
Q. Jarnell again, the number that jumped out at us at the half, 24 4 rebounding, just complete ownership of the boards. What did you guys focus on to turn in that performance?
Jarnell Stokes: As a team, we've been doing that all year. I feel like now that it's in the NCAA tournament, it's getting a lot 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.
Q. Josh, what was going on with you? You seemed to just about make everything you threw up.
Josh Richardson: I think at the beginning of the game, we were moving the ball well and I was getting some looks and they fell. After I hit the first couple, I started getting a little bit more assertive on offense and I think my teammates did a good job of recognizing and getting me the ball.
Q. For any of the players, a lot was made of the whole Cinderella story with Mercer. Do you feel like you're a Cinderella? You're an 11 seed. I think Dayton's the other 11 that's moved on. Do you feel like you're a bit of a story too?
Jeronne Maymon: They isn't really no story here. 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 one of the 16 still standing.
MODERATOR: Any other questions for the student athletes? Gentlemen, you're excused. Thank you very much. Congratulations. Good luck in Indianapolis.
We'll now open the floor up for questions for Coach.
Q. Cuonzo, just Josh had 17 and 15 and now has 26 today. Has he turned his offensive game up even more in the NCAA tournament? What does mean for him to do this on the biggest stage?
COACH MARTIN: I think he's playing well. We'll see if it's consistent with 10, 15 games where he's scoring like that. But he's just a guy that his shots are falling so he stayed aggressive. But I do think sometimes he gets consumed with his challenges on the defensive side of the ball, shutting guys down. But he just made shots. He was assertive. He can score the ball. He can shoot pull ups, he can make free throws.
But even if he's not scoring at this level, his leadership has really picked up the last eight or nine games. He's done a great job. His leadership skills and his defense has went to another level.
Q. Coach, you guys fell to 7 7 in the SEC with the second loss to A&M. Now you're taking selfies in the locker room on the way to the Sweet 16. Has it settled in, the turnaround in the past eight or nine games?
COACH MARTIN: My approach is always consistent. It was just really making our guys understand and believe. You make it to the Sweet 16, it's a true blessing to be 16 the last 16 teams standing in all of college basketball. It's amazing how we say the expectation with this and that. It wasn't a ranked team. It wasn't a team that was picked to finish first in the SEC, but that's amazing, I guess, whatever the criticism is.
But luckily for our guys, they stayed the course, didn't get caught up in the negativity and they continued to get better not only as basketball players, but as men. That's the most thing, that's probably the biggest thing I'm proud of and their love for each other has really grown as a unit.
It's fun to see that, and it's fun to see them grow.
Q. Cuonzo, being asked about the locker room selfie that's floating around the Internet now and yesterday with the stone cold stunners in the locker room, how loose is the team right now?
COACH MARTIN: They're loose when they need to be loose, but they understand to take care of the business at hand. They do know that. And they didn't give me the stuff, they got Andy Katz and Reggie Miller. They didn't get me in on the stunner. They're just having fun. Then know there's a time and place for all that.
We'll celebrate this win like no tomorrow. Then got to go to class tomorrow. And then as a staff get ready for Michigan, who's a very talented team.
Q. Cuonzo, the domination by your front court was amazing in the first half. What I was intrigued by was the four guard alignment you used that seemed to give you that spark and get you some working margin.
COACH MARTIN: We'll do that. We'll play four guards. When those two 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 allows Jarnell and Jeronne to post up, make plays and isolate that post so now if you help off, you got four perimeter guys that can make shots, make plays off the dribble, it helps you. We'll mix it up. But again, when those two guys are playing at the level they're playing at, it's hard to take them off the floor.
Q. Just have to ask, in light of today's performances, SEC is undefeated in the NCAA tournament. What is your thought on that, especially after maybe what people were saying about the league throughout the regular season?
COACH MARTIN: Again, I think when you have a stage and a platform and you're on television, you're allowed to say what you want to say. I think sometimes perception becomes a reality. It's a very tough league, a very talented league. You've got the number one team in all of college basketball in the SEC. You have the most winningest college program in the SEC, in Kentucky.
It is what it is. I just think for us as a league, don't get consumed with the peripheral. Just continue to work hard, get multiple teams in the tournament because you have very talented teams. It's unfortunate we only have three teams in it.
I don't think the criticism is accurate. But the teams that are in the tournament, they won it because they're good teams.
Q. Coach, Jordan said the difference between this team and where it was a little while previously is that when one guy has an off night, somebody else steps to into his place. That would be an example of him tonight, didn't shoot the ball well. Do you feel if one cylinder isn't firing, somebody else will step in?
COACH MARTIN: The biggest key, and I've said it all season long, defend, rebound, play hard. I say it all the time. That's what I'm consumed with. The shots don't fall, you defend, rebound, play hard. You give yourself a chance to win games. That's what we're doing. There's no magic tricks. We haven't changed anything. There's nothing different. They just completely bought in and understood in order for us to be successful, this is what we have to do. And they're doing it.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)