RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - After turning Tobacco Road into “Raleigh Top,” Tennessee is headed to the round of 16.
Tennessee denied Mercer a second straight upset in decidedly one-sided fashion, routing the Bears 83-63 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night behind 17 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds for Jarnell Stokes.
Josh Richardson had a career-high 26 points and Antonio Barton had 18 for the 11th-seeded Vols (24-12), who are making the most of their first tournament appearance since 2011.
“NIT two straight years, I guess that’s what you’d call starting from the bottom,” Stokes said. “A lot of people doubted us, and that just makes the ride much better.”
The Tennessee band had plenty of chances to blare their beloved “Rocky Top” during this rout, which followed the same script as their 19-point thumping of Massachusetts two days earlier: The Voles outrebounded Mercer 41-19 to keep the Southeastern Conference perfect in the tournament.
They joined Florida and Kentucky in the regional semifinals - the first time three SEC teams made it that far since 2007.
“I’ve been hearing that the SEC has been a football conference for a long time but I don’t know how you can still say that when you’ve got three SEC schools in the Sweet 16,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said.
Tennessee will face second-seeded Michigan (27-8) in a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night in Indianapolis.
Stokes broke his 2-day-old school tournament record for rebounds.
Langston Hall had 15 points to lead the 14th-seeded Bears (27-9). They knocked off Duke in the signature upset of the tournament but couldn’t answer Tennessee’s size.
“I think hopefully by the time (reality) sets in, we’ll all be able to put a smile on and realize that what we’ve been able to do at our school, and for the city, has been phenomenal,” forward Jakob Gollon said. “It’s kind of hard to see right now.”
Mercer trailed by double figures for the entire second half before the Bears threatened another fantastic finish.
They had the ball down 12 with about 2½ minutes left when Gollon - one of the heroes of the Duke upset two days earlier - threw the ball away in the lane, then fouled out a few seconds later.
McRae finished with 13 points for the Volunteers, who have won eight of nine with the only loss coming to the top-ranked Gators in the SEC tournament.