The Mercer Bears (8-9, 1-3) came into Saturday’s matchup with rival Samford looking for answers. After a tough 2-point road loss to Western Carolina, the Bears had fallen to 0-3 in Southern Conference play, putting them tied for last in the standings and the wrong side of a 3 game skid.
It was a crossroads for the Bears. Fight and secure its first conference win of the season, or dig itself an even deeper hole to climb out of.
The fans in Hawkins Arena knew right out of the gate of the game what road the Bears were taking. Stifling defense and strong finishes at the rim had the Bears up 10-0 early and the fans roaring.
Mercer’s defense held the Bulldogs without a single point for the first 5 minutes of the game, and the offense did what they weren’t able to do in their last matchup versus Western Carolina — took advantage.
As the first half went on, Samford settled down on the offensive end and began to make shots, but the Bears answered them at every turn.
Over the first 10 minutes of the first half, the Bears shot 9-16 from the field, good for 56%, while holding Samford to just 18 percent, or 2-11. They also outrebounded the Bulldogs 11 to 5, and forced 7 turnovers.
With 3:45 to play, the Bears had secured a 34-12 lead, their largest lead of the first half, forcing the Bulldogs coaching staff to burn a timeout.
Most teams likely would have been satisfied going into the half up by 22, but the Bears were not. They continued their suffocating defense, allowing just four points over the final five minutes.
When the first half came to a close, the Bears were on top 44-16. It was Mercer’s best defensive performance of the season. It held Samford to just 24 percent shooting, outrebounded the Bulldogs 21 to 12, forced 12 turnovers, allowed just six paint points, and just two assists.
Senior guard Ria’n Holland led the Bears in scoring with 18 points, while Desmond Ringer led the team in rebounds with seven, and Strawberry led in assists with three.
The second half was more of the same for Mercer. If Samford was going to get back into this game, it was going to have to come out early and string together some baskets.
It was clear over the first few minutes that the Bears were not having it. The Bears matched each basket the Bulldogs would make, and forced a few turnovers that led to easy transition baskets.
With 14 minutes to play, a Strawberry-to-Jelks alley oop dunk ignited the crowd in Hawkins Arena. The Bears had stretched out their lead to 36, and showed no signs of letting up.
Halfway through the second half, the Bears led 65-31. They shot 50 percent from the field, while holding Samford to just 28 percent, and outrebounded Samford 35-19.
At the under-8 minutes timeout, the Bears were on top 67 to 35. Desmond Ringer was closing in on his second double-double of the season with 8 points and 11 rebounds, while Stephon Jelks had secured his third of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
With 5 minutes to play, the Bears sent their starters to the bench, and the reserves were tasked with maintaining the Bears lead over the final minutes of the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Bears had roared to an 81 to 50 victory. It gave the Bears a much needed confidence boost as they look to get back on track in Southern Conference play.
Ria’n Holland led all scorers with 23 points, including five three pointers. Stephon Jelks had notched his third double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Desmond Ringer contributed 8 points and led the team in rebounds with 12.
On January 15, the Bears welcome the Mocs of Chattanooga(6-12, 0-5) to Hawkins Arena for a SoCon matchup. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. and will be aired live on watchstadium.com
*Editor’s note: this article originally stated that the game would air on ESPN3. The game will actually air on watchstadium.com