(Alex Lockwood / Cluster Staff) Mercer’s Justin Cecil attempts to dunk between two Florida Gulf Coast defenders in a recent home win against the Eagles.
The bad news Bears that were vying for the eighth and final spot a month ago are on the hottest streak in the Atlantic Sun, winning seven of their last ten games and nine of their last twelve. After devastating midseason injuries to guard Jeff Smith and forward Brandon Moore, the Bears have shown resilience under head coach Bob Hoffman in their ascension in the conference standings. It’s a winning streak they hope to carry through to the Atlantic Sun tournament, hosted once again in Macon at the University Center March 2-5.
Mercer 72, Stetson 62 OT
The beginning looked bleak as Mercer’s oldest rivals pulled out a 21-10 lead midway through the first half. However, Brian Mills carried the team after a slow start to tie the Hatters 25-25 at halftime. Both teams tried to mount significant leads in the second half, but to no avail. With the Hatters leading by one point with 28 seconds left, freshman Bud Thomas had a chance to win the game but missed one of two free throws and then another two free throws to take the game to overtime.
In overtime, Jake Gollon contributed seven points and six rebounds in Mercer’s rout of the Hatters in the five extra minutes to push Mercer towards another Atlantic Sun victory. Mark Hall carried Mercer through the night though with 23 points off of a 4-for-9 performance from the perimeter. Mills would finish with 21 points and eight rebounds while Gollon would chip in 14 points.
“Mark Hall was awesome tonight,” said head coach Bob Hoffman on MercerBears.com. “He got every loose ball and the ones he didn’t Jake Gollon got. It was a huge win and it was a great team win with our guys staying focused,” he added.
Mercer 74, FGCU 61
The Bears throttled out to a quick start, building a 20-point first-half lead on the Eagles, only to fight off a late comeback during the second half. Florida Gulf Coast would tie the game at the 7:04 mark in the second half, but timely baskets from Brian Mills would prove beneficial to the Bears as the Douglasville senior amassed a team-high 22 points on the night.
Free throws were critical and the Bears cashed in from the charity stripe, knocking down 21-for-29 in the second half to seal the game. Justin Cecil scored 14 points as teammates Mark Hall (12 points) and Bud Thomas (10 points) also had hot hands on offense.
Mercer 57, Kenn. State 55
In the biggest rivalry of recent years, it came down to one shot. With 9.5 seconds remaining, Bud Thomas inbounded to Langston Hall who then passed it back to Thomas on the right side of the court. A streaking Brian Mills caught the ensuing bounce pass to deposit it for the go-ahead score in an intense and physical game with the A-Sun neighbors from Atlanta. KSU’s Markeith Cummings (30 points) would miss a desperation three-pointer, allowing Mercer to punch another postseason ticket to the A-Sun tournament.
“Coach kept telling us to ‘believe, believe in each other,’” Mills said after the game. “We’ve made it this far with each other. We called the play and Bud (Thomas) made an unbelievable pass and it worked,” he added.
In the thriller, it was a tale of two halves, of which Mercer controlled the first. However, the Bears hung on late despite a 54.5 percent shooting percentage from the Owls in the second half to win their ninth conference game of the season.
Mercer 78, North Florida 75
Moving quickly up the standings, the Bears’ trip to Jacksonville was anything but easy. With both teams pulling out small leads in the first half and a tie at the break, Brian Mills had another legendary game with a career-high 34 points to lead Mercer to a win. With their backcourt in foul trouble (Thomas, Hall and Chris Smith would all eventually foul out), the big men shouldered the work as Jake Gollon and Justin Cecil provided excellent defense and offensive opportunities in the paint. Once again free throws were crucial as Gollon (2-2) and Mills (12-14) would hit shots down the stretch to give Mercer a cushion at the end.
Jacksonville 74, Mercer 68
A pesky Dolphins team avenged their early season lose in the University Center with a big win at the Veterans Memorial Arena to snap Mercer’s five-game winning streak. The Bears never led on the night and despite Langston Hall’s 22 points, Mercer simply didn’t have the firepower to stay in the game although they shot 48.9 percent from the field for the game. Turnovers were the key stat of the night as MU committed 20, their highest total since a Dec. 4 loss to Lipscomb (21).
Despite the loss, Mercer returns home for their final two games of the regular season as they’ll face Belmont and Lipscomb, two tough opponents, at home before the beginning of the Atlantic Sun tournament March 2-5.