Geovic Jadol / Cluster Staff
The Bears chose to run their way to a win Sunday.
Trailing 63-55 to Georgia Southern with under eight minutes remaining in the game, Mercer (2-1, 0-0) finished the outing on a 25-4 run to defeat the Eagles (1-2, 0-0) 80-67 in the first game of the Savannah Invitational.
The game-defining spree was one of two major scoring runs the Bears utilized in the victory. After starting slow and trailing 17-5 in the first half, Mercer took a 23-17 lead after a six-minute 18-0 run.
Georgia Southern would respond and hold a 39-34 lead at halftime — and it would never relinquish it until the Bears’ run to finish the game. The game-ending spree began at the 7:26 mark. After seven quick Mercer points, junior guard Jordan Strawberry gave Mercer its first lead, 64-63, since the first half when he finished a layup in traffic.
The Eagles went scoreless for four and a half minutes before Ike Smith threw down a highlight-reel one-handed dunk; it ended a 15-0 Mercer run.
Georgia Southern would never threaten after Strawberry nailed two flagrant-foul free throws with a minute remaining to give the Bears a double-digit lead.
STARS OF THE GAME:
Ria’n Holland: The transfer guard led the team in scoring for the second straight game, chipping in 18 on 7-of-13 shooting.
Stephon Jelks: Jelks nearly registered his first double-double of the season by scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds. He also led the team with five assists.
Jordan Strawberry: The junior scored 10 points in the second half and 13 total. He was a major spark during the run that gave Mercer a lead it never relinquished.
Tookie Brown: Georgia Southern’s sophomore guard torched the Bears from 3, shooting 5-of-9 from behind the arc en route to 15 points.
Ike Smith: Smith led the Eagles with 19 points, including 12 in the second half. He shot a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line and registered a highlight-reel one-handed dunk late in the second half.
STATS THAT POP:
An aerial triumvirate: The Eagles were led by three players who scored 50 of their 67 points: Brown, Smith and B.J. Gladden (16 points).
Hitting the town: Georgia Southern went downtown early and often, making three 3-point shots in the first six minutes. The 3-point shot was the difference in the game before Mercer’s final charge. The Eagles finished the game 10-of-31 from 3-point range.
Points down low a key: While Georgia Southern pulled ahead because of the 3-point shot, Mercer dominated down low. The Bears outscored the Eagles 36-20 in the paint.
Starters dominate the stat sheet: Only six players registered a point for Mercer, five of whom started the game. All five of the starters finished with double-digit points, and the starting five was responsible for 73 of the team’s 80 points.
Donning the khakis: Sophomores Ethan Stair and Cory Kilby did not dress for the game due to undisclosed injuries. Stair, who averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman, has missed the first three games. Sunday was Kilby’s first missed game of the season; he averaged 2.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in the first two games.
(1) A little spark can turn into a wildfire
Basketball is known as a game of runs, but Mercer took that to the next level Sunday with 25-4 and 18-0 scoring sprees. The Bears started flat, but after putting together some quick scores, Mercer was re-energized and looked like a new team.
(2) The depth is fine
While the statistics may suggest Mercer is top heavy, the team’s depth is actually much improved from last year — especially the depth toward the end of last season. Ten players played at least eight minutes, all of whom are capable of contributing in some way.
The team’s depth is strong now and will improve in a big way once Stair and Kilby return from injury.
(3) Don’t underestimate this win
Georgia Southern is a formidable opponent; the Eagles nearly beat N.C. State on the road Nov. 11 but fell short 81-79. The guard tandem of Smith and Brown combined for 38.5 points per game entering the contest against Mercer.
Beating a team like Georgia Southern early in the year with a largely-new team is a huge confidence booster for the Bears. Don’t forget: There are eight new players on the team this season. Gaining the chemistry necessary to be a great team will take time — weeks, maybe months — so to earn an impressive win at this juncture bodes well for the team’s prospects come March.
Strawberry on the end of the game: “We came out kind of flat at the beginning of the game. Second half, we came out a little bit flat in the beginning. Then we figured it out those last eight minutes and came out with a lot of energy.”
Strawberry on how important the win is: “I think it’s huge because we have a lot of new faces, and we were down early, and we were down a lot. For us to battle back like that against a really good team… I think that’s a big confidence booster for our whole team.”
Holland on leading the team in scoring early in the year: “It opens up the gaps for my teammates to drive the ball and stuff if I’m a threat for shooting… I would like to continue scoring like that.”
Hoffman on Holland: “He’s special… I thought he was going to make a couple more that he missed, because I believe every time he shoots it, it’s going in.”
Hoffman on energy Strawberry’s plays brought to team: “We need him to be an energy guy. He’s kind of laid back a little bit — from California, I guess… The steals on press, he just read the play, and I thought it changed the momentum of the game.”
Hoffman on limiting Georgia Southern’s 3-point shooting: “We finally started trapping the ball screens a little bit more, especially with Brown. Then we tried to get it out of his hands in the full court, where someone else had to make a play, because he’s so dynamic in every aspect of the game.”