RALEIGH, N.C. — Tennessee isn’t an afterthought any more.
Uncertain of their postseason status a few days before the NCAA Tournament field was picked and then competing against a tournament darling, maybe now the Volunteers will start receiving their share of attention.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder, too,” forward Jarnell Stokes said.
Tennessee overpowered Mercer on the way to its third tournament victory in a five-day period, reserving 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 Tennessee offense clicked from the start.
The 11th-seeded Volunteers (24-12) move on to face second-seeded Michigan (27-8) on Friday night in Indianapolis. They’re in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in eight years and one of three Southeastern Conference teams to make it through the weekend unscathed.
“This is a surreal feeling,” Stokes said. “We’ve got players who can make plays and I think that was the difference. Now to be back in the Sweet 16.”
Stokes provided 17 points and 18 rebounds, helping quash the Cinderella run of Mercer. Guard Antonio Barton’s 18 points and guard Jordan McRae’s 14 points aided the Volunteers.
Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games, barely a week removed from sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“This is a team with a lot of fight,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They’ve grown through the process.”
Forward Jeronne Maymon said the Volunteers expected to make a tournament run.
“We’re supposed to be here,” Maymon said. “We just need to play like it. We’re one of 16 teams still standing.”
Mercer (27-9), which was the lowest seed remaining in the tournament entering the weekend, was unable to duplicate a victory against another team from a power conference after dismissing third-seeded Duke on Friday.
Part of the reason for that was Richardson, who had a hot hand and didn’t let up.
“I was getting some looks and I think my teammates did a good job of recognizing me,” Richardson said.
Martin said the offense was a bonus because Richardson generally provides leadership anyway.
“His shots were falling, so he stayed aggressive,” Martin said.
Mercer, which trailed by as many as 19 points, cut the deficit to 72-61 with 2 1/2 minutes to play.
The Bears had some curious statistics because they were shooting above 50 percent from the field until the final few minutes and committed only six turnovers (two in the final 3:01).
Yet they could not match up with the Volunteers in the lane, where Tennessee’s muscle was too much. The Volunteers had a 41-19 rebounding edge.
“We knew they were going to attack the boards,” said Mercer guard Langston Hall, who led the Bears with 15 points.
Reserve guard Ike Nwamu scored 12, guard Anthony White Jr. had 11 and forward Daniel Coursey added 10 for the Bears.
Forward Jakob Gollon, who had a distinguished career that covered six years because of a medical hardship, fouled out with 1:56 remaining in his final game for Mercer.
It was a whirlwind few days for the Bears because of unprecedented attention.
“It had some ups and downs,” forward Bud Thomas said. “Obviously, this is really tough for all of us. I’m just proud of all the guys here and in the locker room.”
Hundreds of Mercer fans were on hand, donned largely in black after suiting up in orange for the upset of Duke. But they clearly wanted to distinguish themselves from the Tennessee crowd.
Tennessee carried a 42-27 lead to halftime, mostly because of Richardson’s 16 points and an overwhelming rebounding cushion.
“They came after us from the beginning,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “Our guys battled like crazy. Our guys showed great resolve. But they just kept coming at us.”
Mercer was credited with only four first-half rebounds, with the Volunteers continually cashing in on second-chance points from their 12 offensive boards. They also had 12 defensive rebounds at the break.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” Stokes said of the interior power. “Now that it’s the NCAA Tournament, we’re getting more attention. We feel like we can control the boards.”
The Volunteers scored the game’s first eight points. That edge was wiped out, but later they connected on seven shots in a row to build a double-digit advantage.
Five of Mercer’s 11 baskets in the first half came on 3-pointers.
NOTES: Mercer F Jakob Gollon, who is in his sixth year of eligibility after he was granted a medical hardship waiver, played in his 154th career game. That is the second most in NCAA history behind the 157 of former Ohio State player David Lighty. … Mercer ended Tennessee’s season last year with a first-round NIT victory in Knoxville, Tenn. … Tennessee reserve C Rawane Ndiaye’s family lives in Raleigh. … The Volunteers have won 23-plus games for only the fifth time in program history.