Add one more thing to the list of disappointments that has been associated with the Tennessee Volunteers' basketball team this postseason.
If the Volunteers were upset about the NCAA Selection Committee snubbing them from the NCAA Tournament, they are not going to be too happy with the result of their first round NIT performance either, as their season has come to an abrupt end after being stunned by the Mercer Bears, 75-67, Wednesday night at Thompson Boling Arena.
The Vols were able to get out to a very early 12-11 lead in the first seven minutes of action, but when the Bears took a 14-12 lead following a three-pointer by guard Travis Smith with 13:31 remaining in the first half, there was no going back.
While the UT faithful will be in a uproar about the team's lackluster performance against a team with far inferior talent, head coach Cuonzo Martin said that Mercer won the game, Tennessee didn't lose it.
"This is a good opponent," Martin said. "Whether you are in the NCAA Tournament or not, this is a very talented team. It's a team that has been together, and they run a lot of different set plays, so if you don't have a lot of prep time, it can be a long night for you. We knew as a staff it would be a tough game because of their talent, not necessarily because we didn't make the tournament."
The biggest problem the Vols faced was their inability to get a stop. Mercer guard Travis Smith scored a game-high 25 points and his teammate, center Daniel Coursey, went a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor and scored 15 points.
"Their timing was perfect on the offensive end today," sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes said. "Our rotations on defense really hurt us in this game."
The one bright spot for Tennessee was the play of Stokes, who scored 14 points to go along with 13 rebounds, 12 of which were offensive. The performance was Stokes' 16th double-double on the season.
The Vols had a strong stretch towards the end of the season, after a slow start in the early part of the year, but back-to-back losses quickly killed their momentum. Even with these two tough games, Martin said he was very proud of the way his team played this year.
"I thought it was a good season," Martin said. "We started out slow, but these last two games don't define our season. I thought our guys did a great job really fighting back, showing a level of mental toughness down the stretch of the season and guys got better. We just lost against Alabama, we just lost to Mercer and that's how I look at that, it's just two games we lost."
With their season now over, the Vols will now turn their attention to the offseason where Martin said the team will focus on individual defense so that they can hopefully reach the NCAA Tournament next year.
"We just need to continue to improve with our individual defending," Martin said. "In some cases with some guys they probably played to many minutes this season, and when you play so many minutes the focus level isn't where it needs to be individually defensive wise on a consistent basis.
"... We have to take better pride individually defending one-on-one guys and shutting guys down."
The Vols finish their season with a 20-13 overall record and a 11-7 record against the SEC, which was tied for fifth in the conference.