Travis Smith scored 25 points to match his career high as Mercer (24-11) showed more energy than Tennessee (20-13) all night in front of only 4,468 fans at the 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena. Mercer advanced to a second-round game Monday at BYU.
Mercer won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title, but it lost to Florida Gulf Coast in the March 9 conference championship game. The NIT grants automatic bids to conference regular-season champions that fail to win their league tournaments and don’t receive NCAA at-large invitations.
Tennessee didn’t learn it was going to the NIT until it failed to earn an NCAA at-large invitation on Sunday.
“I could definitely see where it’s a lot harder for them to have a quick turnaround like that,” said Mercer center Daniel Coursey, who scored 15 points and shot 7-for-7. “I feel like that did have sort of an effect. We had a full week-and-a-half that we didn’t even play a game. We had a few days off and then had practice. That definitely helped us.”
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said his players were emotionally drained, but he also credited Mercer for outplaying his team. Mercer led 34-28 at halftime and stayed ahead throughout the second half.
“We knew as a staff it would be a tough game because of their talent level, not necessarily because we didn’t make the tournament,” Martin said. “That just adds to it.”
This marked the second straight night a Southeastern Conference team had lost to a team from a low-major conference in the NIT. Robert Morris of the Northeast Conference beat defending national champion Kentucky 59-57 on Tuesday.
Mercer improved to 2-1 this season against Southeastern Conference foes. Mercer lost 58-49 at Georgia on Dec. 18 and won 66-59 at Alabama on Dec. 22. Alabama had won two of its three meetings with Tennessee this season.
“We were very confident,” Smith said. “We’re a tight-knit team and we believe we can compete with anybody at any given time.”
Trae Golden scored 20 points and Jarnell Stokes had 14 points and 13 rebounds for Tennessee. Stokes’ 12 offensive rebounds were the most by a Tennessee player since the school started keeping track of that statistic in 2011-02. Jordan McRae had been leading the Vols with 16 points per game, but he scored just seven Wednesday and shot 3-for-14.