RALEIGH, N.C. — No confetti was falling, but the significance of the moment was unmistakable.
Cuonzo Martin bear-hugged by each Tennessee basketball player, one-by-one, at the center of the PNC Arena court.
One postgame television interview later, Athletic Director Dave Hart was the next to embrace the oft-criticized Volunteers head coach.
A 2013-2014 journey full of more ups and downs than could possibly be put into words will at least end with "Sweet 16" next to its name.
The Tennessee Volunteers stomped No. 14-seeded Mercer, 83-63, Sunday evening to claim the seventh Sweet 16 in program history, the fourth in the last eight years and the first of Martin's coaching career.
"It's sweet," Josh Richardson said, shortly before chuckling when he noticed the coincidence. "Sweet – that was a good one."
Wade Rackley • Tennessee Athletics
Along with his usual defensive stopper responsibilities, Richardson scored 26 points in the win, marking both the game-high and a career-high for the junior guard.
He went 9-of-13 from the field, scoring 16 points in the first half alone and picking up the offense with Jordan McRae going just 4-of-12 with 14 points.
"I felt like at halftime that I couldn't miss," Richardson said. "It's nice to have a game like that."
With McRae — Tennessee's typical offensive juggernaut — struggling to carry the load like he usually does, the Vols' guards stepped up with Richardson and Antonio Barton (18 points) combining for six 3-pointers.
The Vols are 9-0 when Barton hits at least three from deep. He canned four Sunday.
"That's big for us as a team, because now we have an inside-outside presence," junior forward Jarnell Stokes said. "So it's hard for teams to double-team (in the post) when we have guys who are hitting shots like that."
As for the inside, it was business as usual for Stokes, who amassed 17 points and 18 rebounds — one less than Mercer's entire team.
At one point, a quick look at the box score showed Stokes out-rebounding Mercer, 16-9.
But with the burly Vols' edge on the boards captivating the national audience, Tennessee's players didn't see anything out of the ordinary.
"As a team, we've been doing that all year," Stokes said of the rebounding prowess. "I feel like now that it's in the NCAA tournament, it's getting a lot more attention.
"We always feel like we control the boards."
McRae agreed, giving an indication that things may not be so pretty when the pair of 260-pound big men, Stokes and senior leader Jeronne Maymon, leave Knoxville.
"Anytime we have Jeronne and Jarnell wearing the Tennessee orange," McRae said, "we feel like we always have the advantage."
The Vols didn't seem to miss a beat from the opening tip, jumping out to an 8-0 lead before fans settled into their seats. But Mercer didn't go quietly, quickly answering back and tying things up at 10 apiece.
But as the Bears tried to claw back with their elusive offense, the Vols simply answered with scoring of their own and dominating the glass.
The Vols shot 50 percent in the opening 20 minutes and held an undersized Bears squad to just four first-half rebounds — UT had 24 — as they assumed a 42-27 halftime lead.
Any run Mercer made at the Vols' lead in the second half was short-lived. The Bears couldn't cut the deficit to less than 11 in the final frame, and every time the Cinderella of this year's NCAA tournament threatened to cut it to single digits, the Vols simply answered with dagger after dagger.
By the time the Vols blew open a 20-point lead late, the Mercer crowd's raucous "I believe that we will win" chant proved less and less foretelling.
And as the clock struck zero, reality sunk in for Martin and company.
"It's amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes throughout the course of a season," Martin said. "[It's] fun to be around. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way. They continued to work hard, continued to stay together and found a way to win games."
Given the adversity and criticism Vols' players, coaches and the program in general have faced throughout the entire season, the moment didn't weigh heavy on just Martin alone.
For Stokes, being a part of the past two Vols' teams that were bounced early in the NIT made it all the more sweeter.
"It's a great feeling, you can't really explain it," Stokes said. "NIT two straight years, I guess that's what you call starting from the bottom."
The Vols will travel to Indianapolis and face No. 2-seed Michigan on Friday for a shot at either Kentucky or Louisville in the Elite Eight. Tip for the game is set for 7:15 p.m. on CBS.