Mercer hands disinterested Vols merciful ending
By Grant Ramey | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tennessee wanted a spot the NCAA Tournament, not the National Invitational Tournament. You know, the Big Dance, not the Little Dance.
So you shouldn’t be surprised a seventh-seeded NIT team from the Atlantic Sun Conference came to Thompson-Boling Arena and put a painful 75-67 ending to another painful postseason for a supposedly NCAA tournament-worthy Tennessee team Wednesday night.
Mercer wanted to be there. Tennessee didn’t. That wasn’t hard to notice. Wasn’t hard to guess going into the game, either.
The announced attendance was a placid 4,468. Those famous black curtains, dusted off from the Kevin O’Neill era, reappeared to hide the empty seats in the Thompson-Boling balcony. The Mercer pep band and handful of fans that made the trip were louder than the home team’s.
But that’s to be expected in the NIT, where the big-name NCAA bubble-bursted teams land with disinterest and mid-major teams act like they want to be there.
It happened Tuesday night when Kentucky lost at Robert Morris. And again Wednesday when Tennessee looked all too uninterested against an upset-minded Mercer team.
Jarnell Stokes showed up, like he had all season, with another double-double, including 14 points and 13 rebounds, 12 of which came on the offensive glass.
He said he was ready to go Wednesday night, regardless of resumes.
“We were disappointed about the NCAA,” Stokes said. “But it wasn’t difficult for me, I love playing basketball. So I wanted to make sure I came out and played hard.”
Trae Golden played hard too, with a team-high 20. But that was it for Vols, at least in double-figures.
Josh Richardson had 9. Jordan McRae had 7, as did Quinton Chievous. Armani Moore had 5.
Mercer had four in double-figures, including Travis Smith’s game-high 25.
“Their timing was perfect on the offensive end today.,” Stokes said. “I think that hurt us as far as rotations on defense.”
Now Mercer gets a second-round trip to BYU and Tennessee gets a head start on the offseason. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that’s how both teams would’ve preferred it.
“We were a little discouraged about not getting in,” Stokes said, “but we lost to a good opponent. They did a good job of running their offense, controlling the tempo.”
Cuonzo Martin continued to lobby for his team’s NCAA-ready resume after Selection Sunday left the Vols out. There wasn’t nearly as much talk about the NIT. Or Mercer.
“I don’t think we came out expecting to lose,” Stokes said. “They played very hard, their bench was into it.”
Martin emptied Tennessee’s bench early. It didn’t help.
Against Mercer, Tennessee looked more like a team that would’ve struggled to make the Atlantic Sun Tournament, not to mention the 68-team NCAA field.
“They played this game like it was the end of their lives,” Stokes said. “They’re a good opponent. I don’t feel like we played as hard as we need to to win the game against a team like this.”
Mercer played like its life depended on it. Tennessee played like it was an NIT game.
The Vols were looking at their resume, not their next opponent. Now Mercer is looking forward to its next opponent in the second round.
“At the end of the day they basically did a good job on both ends,” Stokes said. “That’s what lost the game, discouraged or not.”
Discouraged or not, NIT or not, Tennessee proved the NCAA selection committee to be right.
The Vols weren’t an NCAA team. They weren’t an NIT team for long, either.
Grant Ramey is a sports writer at The Daily Times. You can reach him at (email@example.com)