The Ruling: Three takeaways from Mercer’s 72-65 loss to Western Carolina

Demetre Rivers squares up against his Western Carolina defender.

Geovic Jadol / Cluster Staff

Demetre Rivers squares up against his Western Carolina defender.

Hayes Rule, Staff Writer

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Mercer basketball matched its longest losing streak in over five years with a 72-65 loss to Western Carolina Thursday at Hawkins Arena. Here are my three takeaways from the loss:

(1) The loss of Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer has been more difficult than expected.

When I first got the official statement announcing that Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer were suspended for an indefinite amount of time, I took to Twitter.

There was no time to even consider what the losses would mean for Mercer, but once the initial shock wore off, I knew these wouldn’t be easy to overcome.

Put this into perspective: You’re a part of a tight-knit basketball team, spending every day all day together. Tuesday, you tragically lose the leader of your team to a shocking and confusing murder.

Wednesday, a vigil for that teammate — brother — is held in the arena you call home, and you have to stand in front of cameras and talk to members of the media like yours truly.

Then to top it off, you have to gather your bearings and play a conference game Saturday. But wait! There’s more! An hour before game time, it’s announced your leading scorer (Lewis) and second-leading rebounder (Ringer) are not in the starting lineup.

What a week — one that not many teams could survive. And now in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Bears have simply struggled on the court sans Jibri Bryan, Lewis, Ringer and the concussed Niklas Ney.

But the looming question remains: Can Mercer bounce back to compete for, or even win, a SoCon Championship without Lewis and Ringer? Head coach Bob Hoffman announced on his radio show this past week that it is unlikely for the duo to return to the court this season, so if the Bears are trying to go dancing this year, it will have to be done with the current rotation.

The absence of both Ringer and Lewis has certainly been felt — just look at the stats. With Ringer playing the five spot for the team’s first 23 games, Mercer held a 10.3 rebound per game advantage on its opponents and had only been out-rebounded once.

Without him in the last four games, the Bears have won the rebound battle only once and are actually minus 0.75 total. Yes, Mercer grabbed a program-record 60 rebounds against The Citadel in the first game without Ringer, Lewis and Bryan, but I’m leaving that game out because of the Bulldogs’ playing style.

The Citadel runs more than the Road Runner, as evidenced by its astonishing 72 shot attempts in that outing. When you look past that game and consider the last four games, the statistics are more telling.

Sophomore Stephon Jelks even said rebounding has been more of a challenge for him, personally, with Ringer off the floor.

“Desmond used to help me out a bit because they used to think he was big. So they were like, ‘Box him out more,’” he said. “They’ve been trying to take me out more because they know I’m leading the team in rebounding and stuff.”

Defensively, Mercer is allowing teams to score at a higher clip in the paint. In the last four games, opponents have scored 30.5 points per game in the paint, nearly eight more than the average in the first 23 games.

Maybe you can call these past four games an anomaly. But visually, the Bears have less beef down low without Ringer. The rebounding and points in the paint issues are viable concerns, and that’s why I believe the play of 7-foot-1 Andrew Fishler could be vital for Mercer the remainder of the season.

When Fishler made an impact, the Bears downed The Citadel by 16. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds in that game, and Fishler helped Mercer take league-leading Chattanooga to overtime, where he registered eight blocks — one shy of the program record for a single game — and eight rebounds.

His length alters every shot in the lane, and if he can be effective in Ringer’s role, you’ll start to see Mercer control the rebounding game again and get back to its winning ways.

Replacing a consistent scorer such as Jestin Lewis — he had 27, 22, 23 and 26 the four games before the suspension — has been no easy feat, either.

But a 6-foot-8 sophomore has surely done his part.

(2) Demetre Rivers is the real deal.

The sophomore continues to make progress in his first year as a starter, and we’re starting to see him unleashed without Lewis in the rotation. Remember this one-handed slam against The Citadel that made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays?

It was as if that was Rivers’ “Hello world!” moment. In the last five contests, the Goose Creek, South Carolina native has set a career high in points — twice — and is averaging 16 points per game. He scored six total points last year. Keep in mind: This is a player who started his first game Nov. 16 after Bryan sat with a knee injury.

Rivers has fully taken advantage of his opportunity. I think we’re only going to see him improve as he becomes even more and more comfortable.

*Note: I’m currently piecing together a feature story on Rivers, so come back soon for the entire story.

(3) It’s going to have to be a team effort.

Three players (Rivers — 19 — and Jelks — 17 — and Phillip Leonard — 13) scored 49 of Mercer’s 65 points in the loss to Western Carolina. When the Bears have played their best basketball this year, it’s been more of a team effort rather than an individual show.

It’s going to be tough. Mercer’s currently down four players, and two players who normally come off the bench — Jordan Strawberry and Ethan Stair — have been thrust into the starting lineup to play more minutes.

As a result, the Bears’ bench points per game has dropped from 21.3 over the first 23 outings to 10.75 over the last four games.

Multiple players are going to have to make up for the absence of Ringer and Lewis; it cannot just fall on two or three. Head coach Bob Hoffman said inserted starters Stair and Strawberry can help lessen that load, but they’ll have to score more than they did Thursday.

“We need Ethan [Stair] and Jordan [Strawberry] to get a few more,” he said. “They had some opportunities, just didn’t happen [Thursday]. They’re going to be fine.”

It was only one game. Both settled for a couple of difficult shots. Expect bounce-back games from two players who are very capable of scoring double-digit points any night.

But if the game against Western Carolina tells us anything, it’s that great individual performances will only carry the Bears so far. Outside of the 49-point-scoring trio, Mercer shot only 5-of-21 from the field.

Jelks said he knows that “people who come off the bench aren’t as confident right now because they’re coming off the bench just playing.”

But it’s going to take a couple of those guys making plays for Mercer to reach the goal it set out before the season: to make an NCAA Tournament appearance.

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