RALEIGH, N.C. — As No. 11-seed Tennessee dispatched of No. 14-seed Mercer 83-63, the college basketball universe, in a way, went back to the way it was supposed to be.
The Cinderella team, after all, is allowed to win one game — maybe two — but ruining brackets and potential matchups down the road in the NCAA Tournament is generally frowned upon. Tennessee is a more traditional team from a power conference, and will almost certainly give No. 2-seed Michigan a much better game than Mercer would have. Almost.
Senior point guard Langston Hall pulled his jersey over his face and put his head in his hands as he went to the handshake line when the final seconds ticked away. Sixth-year senior Jake Gollom — he of the 20 points in the win over Duke on Friday — patted him on the back as his own eyes welled up with tears. Kevin Canevari, he of "nae nae" fame, was not dancing anymore, covering his face with a towel.
The Bears had one last huddle as a team, as a group that had become incredibly tight-knit over the last few seasons. And then the Mercer players went to the Mercer fans, led by Gollom, and clapped for them, pointing to them appreciatively.
"I would say it’s even better. The crowds were amazing. Our fans traveled like no other. They were all over the gym," Hall said. "Even with a minute left, us down 15-20, we hit a shot, they’re still going crazy. It’s amazing that they came down here and they cheered so loud for us."
Gollom has fought through season-ending injuries and doubts about whether he should even try to keep playing to do just that — keep playing, for the love of the game, the love of his teammates, all of it. So what does he do now?
"For the longest time, I’ve wanted to coach. I’ve kind of geared my studies and my attitude towards trying to learn and get experience for being able to have a good coaching career at some point. I don’t know where that’s going to take me," Gollom said, letting the smallest hint of a smile cross his face. "I look forward to that, and I can’t wait for the chance to maybe be able to work for Mercer again or maybe be bale to see some of the other guys down the road. But I know I want to coach, too."
Rebounding margin (as opposed to percentages) isn’t a stat for everyone. But regardless of which you prefer, all the rebounds belonged to Tennessee in this game. The Volunteers out-rebounded the shorter Bears 41-19, and Jarnell Stokes on his own nearly equalled the Bears’ total with 18 boards.
Tennessee led the rebounding 24-4 at halftime. Twenty-four rebounds to just four. That’s as lopsided as you’ll see in Division-I basketball, much less in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s more a testament to how dominant and physical Tennessee can be on the interior — and was in this game — than it is a knock on what Mercer did.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Tennessee is the No. 4 offensive rebounding team in the country and No. 18 in defensive rebounding. And yes, it showed.
"Anytime we’ve got Jarnell (Stokes) and Jeronne (Maymon) and they’re wearing Tennessee uniforms, we always feel like we have an advantage," Tennessee’s Jordan McRae said.
Considering those two combined for 26 rebounds, it’s tough to argue with that.
Since taking arguably their worst loss of the season at Texas A&M, the Volunteers have now won eight of their last nine games. Seven of those eight wins have been by double digits.
"After we got that first win, we just kept rolling ever since then," McRae said. "There are some teams, they get it earlier in the season. We just got it a little later."
Tennessee is now the third team who played in the First Four round to advance to the Sweet 16 since the expanded field began in 2011.
Right now, they’re just thrilled that their head coach Cuonzo Martin is officially off the proverbial hot seat with this Sweet 16 run.
"Coach Martin, all year he just kept telling us that we’re a family and family sometimes, you and your brother fight sometimes, you and your mom have arguments but you’re always a family," McRae said. "This team has been through a whole lot and stayed a family through all of it."
Tennessee was one of the last teams in the tournament. Very quietly, the Volunteers have become perhaps the most dangerous team in the Sweet 16 that no one is talking about.
"We’ve been ruled out this season a countless amount of times. For us to be doing what we’re doing now, it’s phenomenal," McRae said. "We’re having fun, man. This is the time of everybody’s life. Nobody in this room has been this far before. This is something that we’re going to tell our kids about."