Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) moves around Massachusetts guard Chaz Williams (3) as Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon (34) holds during the second half of an NCAA college basketball second-round tournament game on Friday, March 21, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.
RALEIGH, N.C. — Jordan McRae turned toward the main section of Tennessee fans on one side of PNC Arena and yelled as the buzzer sounded to signal the start of a timeout.
As he turned back toward the Volunteers bench, he was nearly knocked off his feet by teammate Jeronne Maymon.
Moments earlier, McRae threw down a vicious one-handed slam to give the 11th-seeded Vols a 20-point first-half lead against sixth-seeded Massachusetts in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday afternoon.
Much later, in the locker room after the Vols completed a commanding and comfortable 86-67 win against the Minutemen to advance to the round of 32, McRae was watching the video of his dunk, sent to his phone by text message.
"I knew I didn't have time to bounce the ball, so I just decided to take off," McRae said. "I didn't really know where I was at. Sometimes when I jump, I just jump, and I don't know where I was at.
"I'd just seen it on my phone, and I didn't know I jumped from that far out."
Now the Vols are just one jump from the Sweet 16.
Two days after dispatching Iowa in a "First Four" game in Dayton, Ohio, Tennessee (23-12) ran through UMass with relative ease thanks to a 26-point, 14-rebound performance from Jarnell Stokes. The Vols will face 14th-seeded Mercer, which upset Duke earlier Friday, on Sunday.
"We just knew what we had to do," said McRae, who scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half. "This is a huge opportunity for us. We just had to go out there and play hard."
Unlike that tight, nip-and-tuck overtime win against the Hawkeyes, though, the Vols had Friday's win well in hand early.
Tennessee led 21-8 inside the game's first nine minutes and used a 7-0 spurt to take a 16-point lead at the 6:15 mark of the first half. The Vols attributed their solid, poised start to getting their NCAA tournament nerves out of the way in Dayton.
"We came in and we put it on them early," said guard Josh Richardson, the hero of the Iowa game who scored 15 points Friday. "We played like we knew how to play early, and they didn't know what to do with us.
"I think [playing on Wednesday] was great for us, just being able to get the jitters out. Nobody's really ever been to the NCAA tournament for our team, so the chance to get the jitters out and get our legs under us, I think it was good."
Third-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, now with wins in his first two NCAA tournament games as a head coach, said his team set the tone physically early, and McRae's slam drew a big cheer and provided the exclamation to a first half in which Tennessee shot 51.5 percent and scored 11 points off 10 Minutemen turnovers.
"I thought he was going to lay it up," said freshman point guard Darius Thompson, who threw the outlet pass to McRae. "He jumped from outside the block, and that surprised me. I was looking at halfcourt like, 'Is he going to make it to the rim?'"
Trailing by 19 at halftime, UMass (25-9), which won 16 of its first 17 games this season and ascended to 13th in the rankings in January, twice cut its deficit to 10 early in the second half, but Stokes made sure Tennessee's tournament run continued.
He scored 20 of his career-high 26 points in the second half and finished 7-of-11 from the field and 12-of-13 from the free-throw line. The 6-foot-8 junior from Memphis scored on some transition drives and in the post and consistently got to the line against the Minutemen's long, lanky front line.
"That's Jarnell every night," Vols point guard Antonio Barton said. "He's a force to be reckoned with down there. If any team's guarding him one-on-one, he's going to perform like that all the time."
"He just did whatever he wanted tonight," Richardson added, "and I'm perfectly fine with it."
After UMass made its final surge early in the second half, Tennessee pulled away by getting easy baskets after breaking the Minutemen's full-court press. Stokes drove in for a basket, McRae converted a three-point play and Richardson went the length of the floor for another three-point play as the Vols outscored the up-tempo Minutemen 19-8 in fastbreak points.
"They made it a fastbreak game," Stokes said. "They know we like to slow the ball down and use our offense, but they made it a fastbreak game, and we made them pay for it. This was new for us."
Stokes and Maymon (11 points and 11 rebounds) bullying their way inside isn't new for Tennessee, and the Vols shot nearly 54 percent, scored 42 points in the paint to make up for 2-of-14 3-point shooting and went 24-of-31 on free throws.
In its first NCAA tournament since 1998, UMass, which tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10 Conference, often got into the paint, where it scored 48 of its 67 points, but shot 33 percent in the first half and 42 percent for the game.
"Teams haven't played in a week and a half, and they're sluggish," Stokes said. "I was actually happy we had the play-in game. We were able to get battle-tested early and get our feet under us."
Now the Vols want to take another step into the NCAA tournament's second weekend.
"They're just playing with confidence as team," Martin said. "Everybody understands their role. We just want to win as a family."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...