RALEIGH, N.C. — After turning Tobacco Road into “Raleigh Top,” Tennessee is headed to the round of 16.
Tennessee denied Mercer a second straight upset in decidedly one-sided fashion, routing the Bears 83-63 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night behind 17 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds for Jarnell Stokes.
Josh Richardson had a career-high 26 points and Antonio Barton had 18 for the 11th-seeded Vols (24-12), who are making the most of their first tournament appearance since 2011.
“NIT two straight years, I guess that’s what you’d call starting from the bottom,” Stokes said. “A lot of people doubted us, and that just makes the ride much better.”
The Tennessee band had plenty of chances to blare their beloved “Rocky Top” during this rout, which followed the same script as their 19-point thumping of Massachusetts two days earlier: The Voles outrebounded Mercer 41-19 to keep the Southeastern Conference perfect in the tournament.
They joined Florida and Kentucky in the regional semifinals — the first time three SEC teams made it that far since 2007.
“I’ve been hearing that the SEC has been a football conference for a long time but I don’t know how you can still say that when you’ve got three SEC schools in the Sweet 16,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said.
Tennessee will face second-seeded Michigan (27-8) in a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night in Indianapolis.
Stokes broke his 2-day-old school tournament record for rebounds.
Langston Hall had 15 points to lead the 14th-seeded Bears (27-9). They knocked off Duke in the signature upset of the tournament but couldn’t answer Tennessee’s size.
“I think hopefully by the time (reality) sets in, we’ll all be able to put a smile on and realize that what we’ve been able to do at our school, and for the city, has been phenomenal,” forward Jakob Gollon said. “It’s kind of hard to see right now.”
Mercer trailed by double figures for the entire second half before the Bears threatened another fantastic finish.
They had the ball down 12 with about 2½ minutes left when Gollon — one of the heroes of the Duke upset two days earlier — threw the ball away in the lane, then fouled out a few seconds later.
McRae hit two free throws, and Richardson added a fast-break layup to push the Tennessee lead to 77-61 with 1½ minutes left.
McRae finished with 13 points for the Volunteers, who have won eight of nine with the only loss coming to the top-ranked Gators in the SEC tournament.
They are in the round of 16 for the fourth time in eight years, and the third team to go from the First Four to the Sweet 16 since the introduction of the extra round in 2011.
They also got a bit of payback: Mercer ended Tennessee’s season last year with a 75-67 win in the first round of the NIT.
Ike Nwamu scored 12 points, Anthony White Jr. had 11 and big man Daniel Coursey added 10 for Mercer, the plucky Atlantic Sun Conference school trying to match Florida Gulf Coast’s run last year to the regional semifinals.
The Bears drew a perfect matchup for their first game — and couldn’t have had a worse one for their second.
“Any time we have Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell wearing Tennessee orange,” McRae said, “we always feel like we have the advantage.”
They were bigger, more experienced and more precise than a Duke team loaded with high school All-Americans and a leaky defense, carving them up down the stretch in a 78-71 victory that ranks among the top upsets in the history of the tournament.
Mercer starts five seniors and has seven on the roster — but the Bears were down one with 6-foot-11 Monty Brown out with a possible concussion.
Even with him, a Tennessee team with Stokes — who set the school’s short-lived tournament record with 14 rebounds in that 86-67 rout of UMass — was going to be a challenge.
Without him, it was nearly impossible.
“It’s hard to match up with them, but at the end of the day, mainly it was probably my fault towards the end,” Coursey said. “They had a lot of rebounds, and I should have boxed them out.”
Tennessee never trailed and held a 24-4 rebounding advantage in the first half. Richardson scored 10 straight points midway for the Volunteers to turn a tight game into a double-figure lead. His 3 from the right wing made it 29-18 with 6½ minutes left.
Meanwhile, Stokes and Maymon effectively turned Mercer into a jump-shooting team: The Bears managed just one offensive rebound in the first half and didn’t attempt their first free throw until there was just 8:40 left.