The Furman Paladins (16-7, 7-3) rolled into Thursday’s matchup with Mercer averaging ten 3-pointers per game, good for third in the SoCon, and first in 3-point defense, sitting them atop of the SoCon standings.
Thursday, the Paladins unloaded a barrage of 15 three pointers on 50 percent shooting while holding the Bears to just 5-26 from beyond the arc, easily the team’s worst mark this season.
“They were hitting a lot of threes,” said Mercer coach Hoffman. “They were able to get all the plays they needed. The whole deal on guarding them is if you go for shot fakes, you’re in trouble. You’ve got to be disciplined because when you go for shot fakes and they lift you, they get into the lane, you get into rotations, they’re gonna kick out and hit open threes. That’s why there were 15-30 tonight from three.”
Both teams were hot right out of the game. Bears sophomore guard Ross Cummings, making his first career start in place of injured guard Ethan Stair, knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers to score nine of Mercer’s first 13 points. After scoring nine points in the opening six minutes, Cummings would connect on just one more shot attempt, slowing down as the game went on.
“He got tired…We couldn’t get him out because there was no fouls, nothing to get any subs out,” coach Hoffman said after the game. “Maybe I could have called a timeout a little earlier and subbed him out, but you don’t want to use your timeouts that early, especially when the game was back and forth right during that time.”
With 14:09 to go in the first half, Furman guard and reigning SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley connected on a three pointer to give Furman a one point lead. The Paladins never looked back.
Furman stretched out its lead to nine with 7:48 left in the second half, but Mercer responded with an 8-0 run to cut the Paladins’ lead back down to one. Down the stretch, the Bears went cold, going scoreless over the final two minutes, allowing Furman to take a six point lead into half-time.
Furman lead for 15:27 of the first half, but the stat sheet would have argued otherwise. Mercer led in nearly every statistical category, except shooting. That made the difference in the end.
The Bears and Paladins battled in the second half, before Furman went on an 8-0 run to extend its lead to 16 with seven minutes to play. Mercer responded with a run of its own, going 7-0 to cut Furman’s lead back to nine with four minutes to play. Ultimately, it was too little too late for the Bears.
With 2:05 left, Mercer was down 10 and had the ball. Freshman guard Marcus Cohen drove and drew a foul, with the opportunity to cut the lead to under nine for the first time since the 9:15 mark in the second half. Cohen missed both free-throws, dealing a gut punch to a robust Hawkins Arena crowd.
The Bears fought hard, but came up short in the end, losing at home for the second consecutive game. The final score was 85-73.
Mercer was led in scoring by senior guard Jordan Strawberry, scoring 18 points along with five rebounds and six assists. Sophomore guard Ross Cummings scored 15 in his first start, with forward Jaylen Stowe coming up just short of a double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds.
2017 SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley was the guy for the Paladins, scoring 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go along with 5 rebounds. Sibley is the active scoring leading in the SoCon, and he showed why on Thursday.
The loss drops Mercer to 10-13 overall and 3-7 in SoCon action, while Furman improves to 16-7 and 7-3, respectively.
Mercer returns to action on Saturday, welcoming the Wofford Terriers (16-7, 7-3) to Hawkins Arena. The Terriers, the best 3-point shooting team in the SoCon, are coming off a heartbreaking loss to The Citadel, and will be looking to get back on track.
“They’re gonna come in all guns blazing,” coach Hoffman commented looking ahead to Saturday’s game. “Wofford’s gonna be ready to play and have everything in their arsenal, starting with Fletcher McGee and all the other guys that make plays. They execute at a high, high level…We’ll have to be discipled, it’ll a little bit different. We’ll have to be really smart in who we are guarding, what their strengths are, and try to take away a few of those things Saturday.”