By: Nick Porter
CHATTANOOGA/ RALEIGH, N.C. (AP/The Loop) — The ACC’s national championship hopes now come down to one school: Virginia.
Meanwhile, Tennessee — one of the three SEC schools still in the field — came to Tobacco Road and turned it into Raleigh Top.
The Cavaliers and Volunteers cruised into the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 with lopsided victories Sunday night: Tennessee routed Mercer 83-63 before Virginia beat Memphis 78-60.
No. 11 seed Tennessee (24-12) will play second-seeded Michigan in a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday night in Indianapolis.
Virginia (30-6), the top seed in the East Region, will face fourth-seeded Michigan State in a semifinal that night in New York.
The Volunteers and Cavaliers restored some semblance of order after an unpredictable first day in the heart of ACC country.
It began Friday when Mercer beat Duke for the signature upset of the tournament, included Tennessee’s 19-point victory over Massachusetts and continued through Memphis’ tight win over George Washington.
The Vols had an easy time beating those Bears on Sunday and ended Mercer’s pursuit of a second straight Sweet 16 appearance for a tournament darling from the low-major Atlantic Sun Conference.
With “Rocky Top” echoing throughout PNC Arena all night, Tennessee outrebounded the Bears 41-19 — 24-4 in the first half — led by Jarnell Stokes, who broke the school’s NCAA tournament rebounding record he set two days earlier against Massachusetts.
Stokes had 17 points and a career-high-tying 18 rebounds against Mercer, after grabbing 14 boards against UMass.
“Any time we have Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell wearing Tennessee orange,” teammate Jordan McRae said, “we always feel like we have the advantage.”
Tennessee’s win helped the football-first SEC improve to 7-0 in this tournament. The Vols joined No. 1 overall seed Florida and Kentucky in the regional semifinals.
“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,” McRae said.
Mercer was trying to match last year’s Florida Gulf Coast team in parlaying an Atlantic Sun title into a spot in the NCAA tournament’s second weekend, and become the first No. 14 seed to make the round of 16 since Chattanooga in 1997.
But the senior-laden Bears (27-9) trailed by double figures for the entire second half and couldn’t conjure another fantastic finish.
“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’s win over Duke was the most surprising in a series of losses this weekend for the ACC, which has only one team left standing — and it’s not traditional power North Carolina or heavyweight newcomer Syracuse.
“Lot of pride” in that, guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
The league champion Cavaliers were in control throughout against Memphis, leading by 15 at halftime and going up by 27 late while earning their first regional semifinal appearance since 1995.
Joe Harris scored 16 points and Anthony Gill added 13 for the Cavaliers, who hold a No. 1 seed for the first time since Ralph Sampson wore orange and blue.
Austin Nichols scored 15 points for the Tigers (23-10), whose season ended on the opening weekend of the tournament for the fourth straight year.
“Virginia came out, played Virginia basketball, out-toughed us, out-aggressived us,” Memphis guard Goren Johnson said. “They made shots. Every time we made a mistake, they capitalized on it with a bucket. There’s no excuses.”
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