KNOXVILLE – Three days after being passed over in favor of several mid-major teams for a spot in the NCAA tournament, Tennessee didn’t help its case much by dropping its National Invitational Tournament (NIT) opener to Mercer (24-11), the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Sun.
The seventh-seeded Bears came to Knoxville and pulled off a 75-67 upset over the second-seeded Vols, ending UT’s season early in the NIT for the second straight year in front of a season-low crowd of just 4,468 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I thought those guys played well,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin of the Bears. “I thought Mercer did a good job executing their offense, playing with energy, playing with energy. Hats off to them. Their point guard did a good job controlling tempo throughout the game.”
It was Mercer that looked like the team more excited to be playing early, building an early 16-12 edge and then using a 10-1 run at the end of the first half to carry a 34-28 edge into the break.
The Vols (20-13) shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half, but held a 23-13 edge on the boards, helping keep the score within reason.
“We were disappointed by the NCAAs, but it wasn’t difficult for me [to get motivated],” said forward Jarnell Stokes, who had a career-high 11 offensive rebounds in the loss. “I love playing basketball, so I just wanted to come out and play hard.
“We were a little discouraged about not getting in, but we lost to a good opponent. At the end of the day, they basically did a good job on both ends.”
Martin expanded his bench, playing 11 players in the first half, including the seldom-used reserves D’Montre Edwards, Brandon Lopez and Yemi Makanjuola.
Trae Golden led the way with 20 points for the Vols. Stokes had a double-double with 14 points and 13 boards. Jordan McRae, the team’s leading scorer for the season, hit just 3-of-14 from the field for seven points. But not enough shots fell for the favored Vols.
"I mean, I felt like I was taking shots I normally take,” said McRae. “It wasn't really going in tonight."
It was also a rough send off for seniors Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall. That duo combined for just five points in their final game at UT.
Tennessee kept the contest within reach through much of the second half, but the Bears had an answer for every UT threat late. Mercer shot 50 percent from the field, while the Vols connected on just 38 percent of their shots.
Wednesday’s elimination loss caps an up-and-down season for the Vols. Any postseason seemed like a long shot with the Vols sitting at 12-11 overall in January. A run of eight win in the final nine games put UT right back on the NCAA tournament bubble, but a loss in the SEC quarterfinals to Alabama kept them just out of the Big Dance.
“I thought it was a good season,” said Martin when asked to sum up the 2012-13 campaign. “These last two games don’t define our season.”
Added Golden: “If anything, it's just more disappointed for the seniors. Those are really good guys, and for them to have to go out like this, I think that's probably what hurts the most."
Mercer advances to the second round of the NIT to play at BYU. The Bears also extended their all-time record to 4-1 against the Vols.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga