RALEIGH, N.C. — As the game turned: Although the Tennessee men's basketball team owned a double-digit lead for a solid portion of the first half, Mercer seemed primed to carry momentum into the break with one final defensive showing at PNC Arena on Sunday.
With the game clock approaching the final minute, Jarnell Stokes drove hard for a layup.
As he's done countless times this season, the junior forward corralled the offensive rebound.
The frustration was mounting. But instead of withering, the Vols displayed the hustle and persistence seen time-and-time again throughout their NCAA tournament run.
Antonio Barton snagged another offensive board, and after Josh Richardson missed a 3-point jumper, Stokes followed suite with his second rebound in 15 seconds. Just moments later, on the fourth shot attempt of the possession, Jeronne Maymon finally converted a layup and extended the UT lead to 42-27 with 41 seconds remaining in the half.
Then came the defensive stop.
On the ensuing Mercer possession, the Vols clamped down and forced a shot clock violation as the final seconds of the first half ticked off, jumpstarting a forceful celebration from the usually stone-faced Cuonzo Martin.
"This whole experience he's been loose," senior Jordan McRae said of his head coach. "He's just been fired up the whole time."
Hot topic: With Mercer's 6-foot-11 senior Monty Brown — the Bears' only true center on the roster — out with a concussion suffered in the Duke contest, an even larger size advantage down low emerged for the Vols heading into Sunday's matchup.
And it didn't take long for that mismatch to take shape.
In the first half, UT out-rebounded the Bears 24-4 and 12-1 on the offensive glass. Nothing changed in the final 20 minutes as the Vols finished with an 41-19 rebound advantage over Mercer.
Stokes, whose 18 boards set a UT NCAA tournament record and nearly trumped the entire Mercer team, simply viewed the rebound onslaught as just part of the game plan.
"I feel like every game I have a physical advantage over the team," Stokes said. "I feel like now that's it's in the NCAA tournament it's getting a lot more attention. We always feel like we control the boards.
"That's one thing that I always go into the game trying to make my imprint on."
Spotlight: Despite being consistently labeled a pivotal ingredient that ignited UT's late regular season surge, the hot shooting and scoring success of Antonio Barton had all but disappeared once the Vols reached the postseason.
In UT's four tournament games — two SEC and two NCAA — Barton put up just 13 points on 3-of-23 shooting, including a dismal 2-of-15 from downtown.
That cold streak abruptly ended Sunday night.
The Memphis transfer knocked down four 3-pointers — his highest total in two weeks — and started the second half a perfect 4-of-4 from the field en route to an emphatic 18-point performance in the win.
"My teammates did a good job of finding me," Barton said, "and I did a good job of knocking down shots.
"That's a good team. They made it to the tournament, so they're no slouch."
The other guys: Langston Hall finished with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting to lead the Bears.
Outside the box score: The Vols have now eclipsed the 80-point mark in consecutive games for the first time since beating Virginia 87-52 on Dec. 30 and Tusculum 98-51 on Jan. 4.
Say something: Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman on the size of Stokes and Maymon: "They've got the biggest men in America. Wow. I mean, they just kept coming at us."
By the numbers:
26: The Vols shot 26 free throws to Mercer's nine.
81: UT's starters scored 81 of its 83 points.
3: The Bears had just three second-chance points in the first half.
Up next: UT advances to the Sweet 16 where they'll face Michigan on Friday at 7:15 p.m. in Indianapolis.