After derailing earlier this season, the 11th-seeded Vols have gotten back on track in March, rolling to an 83-63 blitz of 14th-seeded Mercer here Sunday at PNC Arena. The win sends the Big Orange against Michigan in Friday's NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals at Indianapolis.
The fact Tennessee struggled mightily in November, December, January and February makes what is happening in March that much more meaningful. Junior wing Josh Richardson grinned when asked how it feels to overcome so much adversity en route to the Sweet 16.
"It's sweet," he said, smiling at the unintentional pun. "Sweet … yeah, that was good. It was nice to know all the blood, sweat and tears we put in paid off. I know that's a cliché but to be able to prove our doubters wrong is nice."
The doubters surfaced early, grumbling when the Vols lost their opener at Xavier in November. The grumbling grew louder when Tennessee suffered a lethargic home loss to North Carolina State in December. The discontent spread after the Vols lost at home to lowly Texas A&M in January. When the Aggies won the rematch at College Station in February, the Big Orange bandwagon got pretty close to empty.
Even as their doubters began to outnumber their fans, the Vols kept grinding in hopes they could salvage the season with a big finish. They have. Sunday's win was their eighth in the last nine games, improving their record to 24-12.
"We didn't want it all to be for nothing," Richardson said of the adversity, "so we came out today and got the W."
Richardson was the key to that W, going 9 of 13 from the field en route to a career-high 26 points. He scored 17 points in the NCAA opener versus Iowa and 15 in Round 2 versus UMass. Asked why he has suddenly become more of a scoring threat, he sheepishly replied, "I don't know. I just have a different mindset, I guess. I'm just getting more assertive."
|Vols junior Josh Richardson scores two of his 26 points versus Mercer.|
Senior wing Jordan McRae said making the Sweet 16 touched different players in different ways.
"Some guys in here (locker room) after the game were crying, they were so happy with the win," he said. "This team has been through a lot."
Including the loss of a sizable portion of the fan base following some ugly losses.
"We've been ruled out this season a countless amount of times," McRae said. "For us to do what we're doing now and the fans we're still having now, it's phenomenal."
Senior point guard Antonio Barton experienced three NCAA Tournaments at Memphis before transferring to Tennessee last summer but never advanced past Round 2. He described the Sweet 16 bid as "amazing," adding: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This is my first time. Me being a senior to get where I'm at … this is all I could imagine."
Barton, who chipped in 18 points for the Vols, agreed that proving the doubters wrong makes the Sweet 16 berth especially meaningful.
"It's a big thing," he said. "A lot of people counted us out a couple of weeks ago but right now we're here, and we're not done. We're going to keep going till we make it to the championship."
Jarnell Stokes, who registered 17 points, 18 rebounds and a team-high 5 assists, also takes comfort in the fact Tennessee has silenced the critics.
"People continuously doubted us," he said, "but as a team we came together as a whole, as a family. We're in the Sweet 16, and I don't think anyone expected that."
McRae, who added 14 points, may have been the happiest player in the Vol locker room. Prior to this season his March memories included a 30-point first-round loss in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, a second-round loss in the 2012 NIT and a first-round loss in the 2013 NIT.
"We're having fun, man," he said. "I mean, this is the time of everybody's life. Nobody in this room has been this far before. This is something everyone will tell our kids about."
As much as they relish making the Sweet 16, several Vols already are looking ahead.
"This is real," Barton said. "It feels good. We'll not settle, though. We're never satisfied. This is a good feeling but we're trying to go to the championship."
Stokes is even more optimistic.
"I have to stay within myself because I know we have a tough challenge coming up with Michigan," he said. "But, as long as we play our game, we shouldn't have many problems."
Jordan McRae video, per the university
Josh Richardson video, per the university
Jarnell Stokes video, per the university