RALEIGH, N.C. — Josh Richardson made another three-pointer, another second-half dagger, and as he pumped his fist, Mercer’s fans dropped their flags and rested their pom-poms.
The magic was nearly finished by then, buried under a double-digit lead as Tennessee did what Duke did not two days earlier: The 11th-seeded Volunteers walloped No. 14 Mercer, one of the NCAA tournament’s darlings, 83-63, in the second round on Sunday.
One team’s unlikely journey ended; another surprise team moved on to play Michigan on Friday in the Midwest Region Sweet 16.
Much earlier Sunday, hundreds of Mercer students and fans crowded onto buses, making the 420-mile ride from the school’s campus in Macon, Ga. The Bears were playing with house money after their first-round win over the Blue Devils, so why not double down? A group stood in the rain before the game, cheering and staging an impromptu pep rally before packing into PNC Arena’s lower level.
Then reality set in, as it sometimes does in the NCAA tournament: The upstart from nowhere eventually succumbs to a major-conference big boy. And the Volunteers have, as Mercer Coach Bob Hoffman put it, “the biggest men in America.”
“They just kept coming at us,” he said.
First came Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee’s athletic power forward who helped his team finish the first half with a 24-4 rebounding lead. Stokes, at 6 feet 8 and 260 pounds, broke the school’s single-game NCAA tournament record with 18 rebounds.
Then came Richardson, whose length gave the Bears problems from the beginning. Mercer (27-8) had somehow contained Jabari Parker, Duke’s superstar guard, during its 78-71 win two days earlier. But Richardson deflected passes, frustrated the Bears’ shooters and scored a career-high 26 points.
“The MVP of the world tonight,” Hoffman said.
It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, Tennessee basketball was an afterthought. Sure, three years ago, the Volunteers fired Bruce Pearl and replaced him with Cuonzo Martin, who shortly after arriving in Knoxville phoned Richardson. Join me in the Southeastern Conference, Martin told him, and see what happens. At the time, players said recently, there wasn’t much hope.
“Tennessee basketball was dead,” Stokes said.
And even a month ago, the Volunteers were all but forgotten. Their conference record was 7-7, the team seemed unlikely to reach the NCAA tournament and fans began signing an online petition aimed at removing Martin as coach.
Then Richardson, a junior, began heating up. He’s a scorer, but it’s his defense Martin loves. The coach assigned him to guard Missouri’s Jabari Brown, the SEC’s leading scorer, and Richardson held Brown to eight points. Three days earlier, Richardson had held Auburn’s Chris Denson to three.
The Volunteers (24-12) won both those games, part of a four-game winning streak to end the regular season. Even with the strong finish, Tennessee needed a win over Iowa in a play-in game on Wednesday to reach Raleigh, and now it’s the third team in four years to reach the Sweet 16 after being forced to win an extra game to make the main tournament field.
“There ain’t really no story here. We’re supposed to be here,” forward Jeronne Maymon said. “We’ve got one of the best teams in the nation.”
On Sunday, Martin assigned Richardson to guard Langston Hall, the Bears’ best shooter. Hall (team-high 15 points) didn’t just struggle to shoot; he had trouble passing, dribbling, looking for open teammates. Amid the frustration, there was Richardson draining another three-pointer or streaking through the lane for a layup.
“After I hit the first couple,” he said, “I started getting a little more assertive.”
With about a minute to play, Martin called for his starters to leave the floor. One after another they headed toward the bench, preserved for the next challenge, and the last one was Richardson. When he arrived, teammates wrapped their arms around him. They had come together to the SEC; now they were headed to the Sweet 16.
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