KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee was surprised at how the smaller school from the mid-major conference performed.
“They played very hard, their fans were into it,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. “They played this game like it was the end of their lives.” The smaller school from the mid-major conference wasn’t.
“We knew we weren’t playing great,” Mercer guard Langston Hall said. “We did a great job sticking to our game plan.”
And simply doing that, as much as anything, was how Mercer knocked off Tennessee 75-67 on Wednesday in a first-round game of the National Invitation Tournament at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The victory gives Mercer (24-11) a second-round trip to BYU. They will play at 9 p.m. on Monday in a game that will be televised on ESPN.
While Tennessee didn’t expect what it got from Mercer, the Bears turned in a fairly normal performance in many areas as far as the game plan went.
But the Bears did turn in some nice numbers on the road against an SEC team. They had two more assists and five fewer turnovers than average, were seven percentage points better on offense and 1.4 percentage points better on defense. They also were a few points better on 3-pointers, while the Vols struggled in all of those areas.
Thus, Tennessee’s 40-29 rebounding edge, 19-9 on the offensive end, only helped keep the Vols close.
“We were letting them get a lot of offensive rebounds, and we were still up the whole game,” Hall said. “We knew if we cut down the offensive rebounds, we could pull away. We did that for a little time period.”
The Vols were getting points in the paint and had cut the margin to four with 13:11 left in the game as the crowd came alive. Then Jake Gollon, who had gone five straight games without hitting at least 40 percent of his shots, drained 3s on back-to-back possessions to force a Tennessee timeout.
“It’s been that kind of year,” said Gollon, who had consecutive 1-for-6 games in the A-Sun tournament. “I’m going to keep shooting with confidence. All the guys keep confidence in each other as far as their shots (go).”
And that helped Mercer lead for the final 22:07 and nearly 32 minutes overall.
“I think they did a good job just running their offense and controlling their tempo,” Stokes said. “At the end of the day, they basically did a good job on both. That is what lost the game, discouraged or not.”
Mercer showed quality balance, with four starters — Travis Smith, Hall, Gollon and Daniel Coursey — combining for 91 percent of the Bears’ points. Bud Thomas battled cramps, and Mercer’s bench, save for post players Monty Brown and T.J. Hallice, got few minutes.
Mercer turned in a superb defensive trip in the first half that ended up not really helping the Bears but sent something of a statement.
Coursey’s dunk off of a Hall dish put Mercer up 22-18 with 9:10 left. Tennessee proceeded miss three shots and get three offensive rebounds on the next possession. The stand finally ended after 84 seconds when Hallice took a charge from Stokes.
That was one of the plays perhaps lost in the scoring output of Smith, Hall, Coursey and Gollon.
Hallice grabbed defensive rebounds on three of four possessions late in the first half, drew that charge, and was the first part of the rare combination of 6-foot-9 forward outside passing low to 6-11 center for a bucket when he connected with Monty Brown for a sweet bucket almost eight minutes into the game.
Brown responded to having his shot blocked twice on one possession by scoring two trips later during his 10 quality and physical minutes, which included drawing a charge against Stokes in the second half.
Hall laid the credit for his own sweet right-handed floater from the left side on Brown.
“It was all right,” Hall said of his shot. “Monty did a great job of sealing it. That’s the only reason I got open.”
Brown posted up and sealed Stokes off, giving Hall a path after he got a step on Josh Richardson.
And that was after Brown had set two screens earlier in the possession.
Stokes had quality numbers: 14 points and 13 rebounds, 12 on the offensive end. That came on 45.5-percent shooting, below his season norm of 53.1.
But overall, Mercer won the inside game with Coursey (15 points four rebounds, one block), Brown (four points, one rebound, one block) and Hallice (eight rebounds in 14 minutes) all taking turns banging the stronger Stokes.
“Coursey and Monty did a great job of rolling and having their hands ready,” Hall said. “They finished a lot of plays against the big kid. It was hard to keep him off the boards, but they did a great job of fighting in there.”