Mercer men’s basketball ties historic mark with win


Image: Justin Baxley

Jordan Strawberry poses with Toby the Bear.

Hayes Rule, Staff writer

They lost their three leading scorers from 2014. But that doesn’t mean the Bears have fallen off; they’ve never been better, as with an 82-47 win over NCCAA Hiwassee Wednesday, the Mercer men’s basketball team improved its record to 7-1, tying the program’s record for the best start to a season as a D-1 team.

The record was set by the 1984-85 team led by Sam Mitchell, a third-round pick in the NBA draft and eventual head coach of the Toronto Raptors as well as current interim head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Mitchell is the second all-time leading scorer in program history with nearly 2,000 points and led the record-setting team to the Trans-American Atlantic Conference Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bears are two games a way from tying the all time record for the program’s best start. In 1966-67 before they became a D-1 program they got off to a 9-1 start.

But the 2015-16 Bears have won by committee, as seven players are averaging at least 6.8 points per game through the first eight outings. The win against Hiwassee was no different, as six players scored at least eight points — Jestin Lewis had 17, Ethan Stair finished with 11, Demetre Rivers scored 10 from the free throw line, and Stephen Jelks, Jordan Strawberry, and Lawrence Brown had 8 — in the 35-point victory.

An 11-0 run in a four-minute span during the middle of the first half gave the Bears a 22-9 lead with 9:03 remaining until half, but Mercer could not pull away from the Tigers; Hiwassee out-scored the Bears by one in the final nine minutes to trail 38-26 at the half.

The Tigers continued to battle, as they outscored the Bears by a point in the first seven minutes of the second half. And then the onslaught ensued: leading by 14 with over 11 minutes remaining, Mercer ran off a 28-7 run to cage the Tigers for good.

What mattered:

– The Bears dominated the glass, especially in the second half. After possessing a nine-rebound advantage in the first half, Mercer finished with twice as many rebounds as the Tigers — 54-27.

– Lewis’s 17 points were one shy of his career high, which he set Jan. 8 last season against East Tennessee State. The senior has now connected on at least two 3-pointers in four of the last five games.

– Freshman Ethan Stair’s 11 points were also one shy of his career high, which he recorded twice in his first seven games. He also recorded six rebounds and four assists. Stair sits at 9.1 points per game, third on the team.

– Mercer moved the ball effectively, as the Bears assisted on 22 of their 25 made baskets in the game.

– Behind Rivers’ 10 free throws, Mercer scored 20 more points from the charity stripe and attempted 30 more than the Tigers; Mercer shot 64.1 percent — 25-39 — compared to 55.6 percent — 5-9 — for Hiwassee.

– With the game in hand, every player registered at least four minutes for the Orange and Black.

What’s the scoop:
Lewis on carrying momentum from the Challenge in Music City victory: “It was real good for us, man… If we didn’t come here with energy, they was going to beat us. We basically wanted to come in, get another win at home, and tie the best start in history.”

Lewis on recent hot streak after struggling early: “Man, about time… My teammates, they got me open, and everybody has faith in me, telling me no matter how many I miss, just keep shooting.”

Head coach Bob Hoffman on pulling away: “Our guys executed at the end of the first half and got on a run. We got some transition baskets which got us some separation, which was really the best minutes of the game, I think, was about a four or five minute stretch at the end of the first half, because it was a close game up until then.”

Hoffman on possibly making history: “We’ll talk about it; we already did. You need to know what you’re playing for. If you can get that done, that would be huge. You think of all the years that Mercer has played basketball, and if you can have the best start, that speaks volumes to what these guys have done at the beginning of the season.”

Hoffman on ball movement: “[Strawberry] and [Phillip Leonard] do a lot of it, but Ethan Stair even had four assists tonight. That’s always been a hallmark of our programs and our teams: trying to find ways to be unselfish and make others better around you, and our guys have embraced that.”

What’s next:
The Bears welcome Alcorn State Saturday at 4:30 p.m. before going on a three-game road trip against Auburn, Arkansas, and Ohio State.