It’s curtains for 2012-13.
In a listless performance in front of a sparse crowd aided only by curtains masking the upper deck of Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee’s season met its end Wednesday night. Mercer, the regular-season champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, handed UT a 75-67 loss in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament.
Just a few days ago, the Vols wanted the NCAA tournament.
Instead their season is over with a 20-13 record.
“It was weird because when we played Missouri (in the regular-season finale), we felt like that was our last home game,” said UT point guard Trae Golden, who finished with a team-high 20 points. “Coming back to Thompson-Boling was tough.”
An announced crowd of 4,468 saw second-seeded Tennessee lose on its home floor in the NIT for a second straight year. Last season, it was Middle Tennessee State doing the deed.
Seventh-seeded Mercer (24-11), which advanced to play third-seeded BYU (21-11), was led by 25 points from senior guard Travis Smith and 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting by junior center Daniel Coursey.
Sophomore Jarnell Stokes led Tennessee with 14 points and 13 rebounds, 12 coming on the offensive end.
“(Mercer) played this game like it was the end of their lives,” said Stokes, who recorded his 16th double-double of the season. “They’re a good opponent. I don’t feel like we played as hard as we needed to win the game against a team like this.”
For the Vols, the loss fit a disheartening end to a start-and-go season. They began the season 11-10, then won nine of 10 games to close the regular season. It all ended with losses in the SEC tournament quarterfinals to Alabama and the NIT first round.
“It was a good season,” said Tennessee second-year coach Cuonzo Martin, adding, “I don’t think these last two games define our season.”
Trailing much of the game, the Vols used a 5-0 spurt midway through the second half to cut the deficit to 50-46.
Three straight Mercer field goals later — a second-chance layup by Jakob Gollon, a baby jumper from Langston Hall and a floater by Smith — UT trailed 59-49 with 5 minutes, 19 seconds remaining.
“They did a good job running their offense and controlling the tempo,” Stokes said. “At the end of the day, they basically did a good job on both ends. That’s what lost us the game, discouraged or not (about missing the NCAA tournament).”
The Vols came no closer than six the rest of the way.
Fueled by 10 points apiece from Coursey and Smith, along with 10-for-33 shooting by the Vols, Mercer claimed a 34-28 halftime lead. UT jumped ahead 27-24 before giving up a 10-1 Mercer run to close the half.
The Vols shot 37.9 percent from the field (22-58), finishing 7-of-24 from 3-point range, and 16-of-24 from the free-throw line.
Mercer made 16-of-21 free throws and 7-of-18 3-pointers.
Despite playing a long, late stretch of the second half with Coursey on the bench with four fouls, Mercer continually kept UT at bay. The Bears never surrendered their halftime lead, controlling the action with a sharp, cutting offense.
Josh Richardson added nine points for Tennessee.
While the Vols’ season officially wrapped up on Wednesday, it might as well have ended on Selection Sunday. UT never rebounded from being snubbed for the NCAA tournament in favor of other bubble teams MTSU, LaSalle, Boise State and St. Mary’s.
On Monday, Jordan McRae said, “There’s no sense in making matters worse by going Wednesday and losing this first game.”
The worse got worse.
McRae, a first-team All-SEC selection, struggled through a 3-for-14 performance from the field, making 1-of-7 3-pointers, and scored seven points.
“We came out slow, they came out with a ton of energy,” McRae said. “We expected that, but the way they jumped on us, even when we got close in the game, they made big shot after big shot.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.