Tennessee stayed hot and took out Cinderella Mercer on the way to its third tournament victory in a five-day period, earning a spot in the Sweet 16 with an 83-63 victory in the third round of the Midwest Regional on Sunday night at PNC Arena.
Junior guard Josh Richardson scored a career-high 26 points as the Volunteers dominated from the start. The 11th-seeded in the Midwest, one of the last team to make the tournament, move on to face second-seeded Michigan (27-8) on Friday night in Indianapolis. They made the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in eight years and are one of three Southeastern Conference teams to the second week in the tournament.
Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin says the turnaround is a product of the players on the team.
“I’m very proud of this team,” Martin said. “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.
The SEC, after putting only three teams in the tournament, still haven’t lost a game in March Madness. Florida and Kentucky both join Tennessee in the Sweet 16.
“Sometimes perception becomes a reality,” said Martin. “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 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.”
Mercer took out Duke on Friday but were unable to back that performance up against Tennessee. Coach Bob Hoffman says his team had no answer for Tennessee’s rebounding.
“They rebound hard and it showed tonight,” said Hoffman. “I didn’t do a very good job boxing them out. It was my fault. We could have a had a lot more defensive stops if we just could have controlled them on the boards. They’ve got the biggest men in America. Wow. I mean, they just kept coming at us. We really missed having another body. Monty would have helped us. Whether it would have been the whole difference, it would have really been great to have another big body because Maymon and Stokes are as physical and strong as anybody we’ve ever played against. You throw them together, that makes it even more tough to overcome.”