Bears blow 10 point second half lead, lose at home to The Citadel

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Bears blow 10 point second half lead, lose at home to The Citadel

Stephon Jelks sets up for the free throw.

Stephon Jelks sets up for the free throw.

Christian Hartley

Stephon Jelks sets up for the free throw.

Christian Hartley

Christian Hartley

Stephon Jelks sets up for the free throw.

Christian Hartley, Staff Writer

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With 18:15 left in the second half, Mercer opened up a 10 point lead, its largest lead of the game. The Bears looked well on their way to a home win over SoCon rival The Citadel.

The Bulldogs had other plans. Over the next seven minutes, they locked the Bears down. Mercer went scoreless for six minutes, leading to a 20-0 Bulldogs run to put them up 50-40 with 12 minutes to play. At the under eight minutes media timeout, The Citadel had stretched its lead to 16 over the course of a 31-5 run.

Mercer fought hard, never giving in, but ran out of time late in a 76-74 loss to the Bulldogs. The loss drops Mercer to 10-12 on the season, and 3-6 in SoCon play, while The Citadel improves to 7-13 on the season, and 2-6 in SoCon action.

Jordan Strawberry was huge for Mercer in the second half, scoring 18 of his 22 points in the final 20 minutes. The senior guard also contributed three assists and four rebounds. In his first start for the Bears, freshman Marcus Cohen scored 10 points, dished out four assists and grabbed five rebounds, but committed a team-high six turnovers.

The Bears shot the ball at a 40.7 percent clip for the game, while the defense struggled to stop The Citadel in the second half. The Bulldogs shot the ball 46.7 percent for the game, but their 60 percent clip in the second half was too much for the Bears to overcome.

Mercer started the game off strong, taking a 10-4 lead with 15 minutes to go. The Bears held The Citadel to 2-11 shooting over the first eight minutes, but five Mercer turnovers kept the Bulldogs in the game.

Both teams struggled to shoot the ball in the first half. The Citadel shot just 8-of-26 from the field, but did knock down five 3-pointers. Mercer didn’t shoot the ball much better, hitting just 11 of its 27 shots, and making 4-12 from beyond the arc.

The Citadel took its first lead of the game with 5:45 to go on a Tariq Simmons three pointer at the end of the shot clock. The Bulldogs lead was brief, ended by a Demetre Rivers layup to put Mercer back in front 23-22. Mercer finished the half on an 7-0 run to go into halftime up 33-25.

The second half started off in a similar way to the first. Mercer came out and opened up a 10-point lead with 18:15 to go. The Citadel was forced to call a timeout. This moment would turn out to be the turning point of the game.

Over the next six minutes, The Citadel went unchallenged to open up a double-digit lead on the Bears. Coach Bob Hoffman called a timeout to regroup his team.

The Bulldogs continued to dominate over the next four minutes, extending its run to 31-5, and going up by 16 points with 8 minutes to go. The Citadel’s press defense forced 17 Mercer turnovers, and the Bears offense seemed to have no answer.

“I thought it was the game we expected. Pressure, trapping, a lot of possessions. We understood that going in playing a Citadel team or VMI team when coach Baucom was at VMI,” said Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman. “They definitely turned us over. In the past we’ve handled the ball a little better against their pressure, and we’ve finished more layups.”

Mercer didn’t throw in the white towel. The Bears cut the lead down to three after a 9-0 run. The crowd in Hawkins Arena was on their feet, and as loud as they had been on all game. The defense played 30 seconds of perfect defense, but it wasn’t enough. Bulldogs guard Frankie Johnson knocked home a fall-away corner three pointer as the shot clock expired to put The Citadel up six with 90 seconds to play. It was the textbook definition of a dagger.

“They hit numerous threes that were big. None bigger than when Frankie hit one over by their bench when we got it back to three,” Hoffman said. “I thought we had a chance to finish it, and get it done if that one didn’t go in.”

The Bears continued to fight down the stretch, and nearly stole one in the end. Jordan Strawberry knocked down a three pointer as time expired, but it didn’t matter. The Bears came up just short of tying the game.

Bears coach Bob Hoffman commended his team for their grit all season. His tone on his team’s ‘never quit’ attitude was a little different after his team’s loss tonight.

“That’s always a great attribute, but you know those are the kind that you got to figure out a way to finish them, and we didn’t.”

Mercer will return to action next Thursday when it welcomes Furman (15-7, 6-3) to Hawkins Arena. The Paladins are coming off a 100-66 thrashing of Western Carolina on Saturday, and will be looking to go 2-0 against the Bears this season after winning 74-71 earlier in January.

Tip-off for the game is set for 7:30 pm (ET) and will air live on ESPN3. You can also listen live to the Bears on the Mercer Sports radio network.

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