Given how unhappy Tennessee's players were to land in the National Invitation Tournament, being eliminated in Round 1 was … well, Mercerful.
Giving one of their most lackluster performances of the Cuonzo Martin era, the second-seeded Vols suffered a forgettable 75-67 upset loss to seventh-seeded Mercer Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. On a positive note, only 4,468 fans wasted 10 bucks on tickets. On a negative note, the turnout was still better than Tennessee's performance.
“Guys were down about not making the (NCAA) Tournament,” Vol sophomore Jarnell Stokes admitted. “But they (Bears) did a good job of running their offense. They were very crisp.”
Apparently so. The scrappy Bears, now 24-11, sank 26 of 52 field-goal tries, becoming just the fifth Vol foe this season to hit 50 percent or better. Most of their buckets came off the oldest play in the book, the simple pick-and-roll. Breaking free for one layup after another, the guard-oriented visitors outscored Tennessee 34-28 on points in the paint.
“Our rotation defense was bad,” Stokes said, making perhaps the understatement of the season.
Tennessee's offense was bad, too. With top gun Jordan McRae misfiring with alarming regularity (3 of 14 from the field, 1 of 7 from 3), the Vols shot a paltry 37.9 percent (22 of 58) overall and a lame 29.2 percent (7 of 24) from beyond the arc. Moreover, Tennessee made just 12 of 19 second-half foul shots, helping Mercer maintain a comfortable lead down the stretch. The visitors also handled the ball better than Tennessee, recording more assists (16 to 10) and fewer turnovers (8 to 11).
Tennessee's only statistical advantage came on the backboards, where the Vols posted a 40-29 bulge. That was due largely to Stokes, who peeled 12 of his game-high 13 rebounds off the offensive glass.
You didn't need ESP to see this one coming. The Vols were a disheartened, sullen bunch after being denied a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their lack of focus was apparent from the start, as Mercer scored 20 points in the paint en route to a 34-28 halftime lead.
Allowing an underdog to get a lead and some confidence can be disastrous. Tennessee, which concludes the season 20-13, discovered as much Wednesday night.
“There were a lot of breakdowns, a lot of miscommunications,” senior guard Skylar McBee said. “They do a good job of executing their stuff but we gave them some easy buckets early, and it kind of haunted us because they got their heads up.”
Instead of tightening their defense and seizing the momentum at the start of the second half, the Vols committed an unforced turnover and a shot-clock violation on their first two post-intermission possessions. The Bears promptly widened the gap to 37-29, and Tennessee never got closer than four points thereafter.
“They outplayed us,” Stokes said. “At the end of the day, that's what happened.”
Tennessee had no answer for Mercer guard Travis Smith. He scored 25 points, hitting 7 of 13 field goals, 3 of 6 treys and 8 of 8 foul shots.
“He's a good player,” said Trae Golden, one of several Vols who tried unsuccessfully to guard Smith. “I've got to take my hat off to him. He's a real good player.”
Mercer also got first-rate performances from center Daniel Coursey and guard Langston Hall. The 6-foot-10 Coursey hit 7 of 7 shots and scored 15 points despite fouling out in 19 minutes. Hall contributed 16 points and 7 assists.
With McRae off his game, Tennessee's scoring burden fell to Golden (20 points on 6-of-14 shooting) and Stokes (14 points on 5-of-11 shooting). Quinton Chievous had a good game off the bench, contributing 7 points and 4 rebounds in 16 minutes. Seniors McBee (3 points) and Kenny Hall (2 points) will not recall their final college game fondly.
Ultimately, the Bears were excited about playing and the Vols were not. They clearly were suffering from a Selection Sunday hangover.
“We wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament but that's not the way the cards were dealt,” Golden said. “It was tough but we still should've won.”