KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Listening to afternoon sports talk radio certainly wasn’t part of Mercer’s game day agenda, so the Bears missed the talk questioning how intense their opponents and hosts for the night would be.
Then the panel started taking a look at Mercer’s wins over ACC and SEC teams and recalled the previous night’s upset of Kentucky by Robert Morris, and a co-host grew more concerned.
“They’re coming in here to kick Tennessee’s butt.”
And the Bears did just that.
Mercer had four players in double figures and made half of its shots in holding off Tennessee for a 75-67 win in the opening round of the NIT at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Next up for the Bears is a trip to BYU at 9 p.m. on Monday night for the second round.
“This is our ninth road win this year,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “Last year, we had 12 road wins. So it’s not a mistake, it’s not just something crazy that happened (Wednesday). These guys have been road warriors and done it at a high level.”
Mercer improved to 24-11 while Tennessee’s season ended at 20-13. Travis Smith led Mercer with 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Langston Hall had 16 points and seven assists, Daniel Coursey 15 points and Jake Gollon 12.
“I think their point guard is really good,” Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said of Hall. “I think he’s a really good player. I called around their league and teams they played, and they said he’s the key to their team.
“I was impressed with his game out there.”
Trae Golden led Tennessee with 20 points, while big All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes had 14 points and 13 rebounds.
“That dude is enormous,” said Coursey who was perfect on seven shots. “He is incredibly strong; he’s probably one of the strongest dudes I’ve ever played against. We did all right against him.”
Mercer led 34-28 at halftime, having weathered Tennessee runs and its own drought. Would the Vols be reminded at halftime about what happened the night before in suburban Pittsburgh as Robert Morris stunned Kentucky? If so, Mercer didn’t let the hosts act on it.
The crowd tried to get the Vols moving after Tennessee pulled within 37-34 on a bucket inside. But Hall found Coursey for a dunk, and then Coursey scored on a putback for a seven-point lead.
Again, Tennessee crept back to within four, and again the Bears answered, this time with a pair of Gollon 3-pointers for a nine-point lead at the 11:39 mark. Gollon then scored low after Monty Brown’s offensive rebound, before Hall pulled up for a 14-footer and Smith banked in a runner for a 56-46 lead with 6:51 to go.
When Golden broke a personal long slump with a 3, Smith took a pass from Hall and answered, and it was again a 10-point margin with 5:17 remaining.
Coursey getting his fifth foul with 2:17 left and the Bears up 63-54 added potential suspense. Tennessee cut the Mercer lead to six with 1:25 to go, but Mercer was strong at the line down the stretch.
From the 2:02 until the end of the game, Mercer went 12-for-14 at the line and made eight straight at one point. Hall broke that stretch with two misses with 47 seconds left, but that wasn’t nearly enough time for Tennessee to take advantage.
Mercer spent the game changing defenses, usually within a Tennessee possession, going from man to zone and vice versa. The Bears also double-teamed Stokes. Every time the 6-foot-8, 270-pounder got the ball and turned, he was greeted by a second defender and occasionally a third. Tennessee made life tough on itself with a 16-of-24 night at the free-throw line.
“If you’d have seen us all year, you wouldn’t be shocked,” Hoffman said. “That’s how we play. Their toughness was exhibited throughout that 40 minutes against an amazing, a big-time physical team.”