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Close losses leave sour taste for men’s basketball team

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The Bears finished the 2016-2017 season with a final record of 15-17 and a 9-9 record in conference play.

The Bears finished the 2016-2017 season with a final record of 15-17 and a 9-9 record in conference play.

Ethan Thompson

Ethan Thompson

The Bears finished the 2016-2017 season with a final record of 15-17 and a 9-9 record in conference play.

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Mercer stormed out of the gates against ETSU, leading 20-7 only eight minutes into the outing. But the Bears couldn’t keep the pace up and ultimately exited the tournament early, ending their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament.

After losing 73-66 to the Bucs in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament, the Bears finished the 2016-17 season 15-17 (9-9).

The kicker: Mercer men’s basketball lost eight games by three points or less this season.

KEY GAMES

Dec. 18: Auburn (76-74 loss)

The Bears had a chance to upset another Power Five opponent but fell short as the Tigers drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

Jan. 19 UNCG (68-66 loss)

Early in conference play, Mercer had UNCG on the ropes on the road. But in what seemingly became a trend for the Bears, they couldn’t close the deal as Diante Baldwin made a 3-pointer to go ahead with five seconds.

Feb. 2 Furman (70-68 loss)

This particular loss may have been the toughest to swallow. After winning three straight conference contests, Mercer nearly defeated the top team in the conference at the time, but once again couldn’t close the deal.

The Paladins drained a jumper to go up by two with three seconds remaining to ice the game. Coach Bob Hoffman was visibly distraught after the game and during the press conference, showing just how difficult of a pill this one was to swallow.

Feb. 4 Wofford (65-62 loss)

The following game, Mercer had a chance to avenge the Furman loss. But it fell short again. The Bears lost on another last-second shot, this one a 3-pointer with three seconds remaining. The loss caused Mercer to end its home stretch with two straight losses.

Feb. 25 Chattanooga (64-54 win)/Feb. 27 Samford (88-79 win)

The Bears finished the regular season with two victories — one big one over a difficult Chattanooga team — to grab the much-desired six seed in the conference tournament. By finishing sixth, Mercer avoided the play-in round.

But finishing sixth may have ultimately been a bad draw for the Bears, as they faced eventual conference champion ETSU in the first round. Mercer struggled more against the Bucs than anyone else in conference during the regular season.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • Ria’n Holland led the Bears with 17.2 points per game in his first season at Mercer. He will return next year for his senior year.
  • All of the starting five averaged at least 7.2 points per game.
  • Jordan Strawberry led the team with 4.3 assists per game while Stephon Jelks led the team in rebounding with 6.7 per contest.
  • The Bears looked good statistically; they had an advantage on their opponents in scoring (+2.6), field goal percentage (.444 versus .415), rebounding (+5.5) and assists (+0.1).
  • It’s the first time Mercer basketball has finished with a losing record since the 2010-11 season.
  • Holland earned All-Conference Second Team.

POSTSEASON?

Finishing the season under .500, Mercer won’t be going to one of the postseason college basketball tournaments. It will be the first time since 2010-11, breaking a five-year streak of postseason play.

LOOKING AHEAD

Barring a transfer, Mercer will only be losing forwards Andrew Fishler and J.J. N’Ganga. Fishler chipped in production off the bench, playing 8.9 minutes per game and adding in 2.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and a team-high 23 total blocks. Primarily, his 7-foot-1 length will be missed defensively.

N’Ganga, who transferred to Mercer this season, played 8.2 minutes per game and added 1.3 points and 1.7 rebounds. With N’Ganga and Fishler departing, redshirt freshman Mac Brydon will figure to make an impact down low next season.

The Bears return their entire starting five, as Holland, Strawberry, Jelks and Demetre Rivers will all be seniors; Desmond Ringer will be a redshirt senior. Sophomore Ethan Stair also figures to return to action next season after missing all of 2016-17 with injury. He played more than 24 minutes per game as a freshman and averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.

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Close losses leave sour taste for men’s basketball team