Amid the mourning of sixth-year senior Jibri Bryan’s death and the suspensions of starters Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer, the Mercer men’s basketball team threw down a season-high eight thunderous dunks en route to an 88-72 win over The Citadel.
Mercer (18-6, 8-3) showed no signs of ill effects from the off-court events during the time between the team’s last game — Monday at Samford — and tip on Saturday. After losing one teammate Tuesday afternoon in the tragic death of Bryan, the Bears lost two more for an indefinite time after Athletic Director Jim Cole released the following statement less than an hour before game time:
“The University has suspended Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer from participating in the men’s basketball program,” said Cole. “The suspensions are not based on any involvement in the tragic incident earlier this week. Neither do the suspensions have anything to do with NCAA issues.”
Without Lewis and Ringer in the lineup for the first time this season, the Bears jumped out to a 14-2 lead five-and-a-half minutes into the outing. The run was the difference in the first half, as The Citadel ultimately found its bearings and was outscored by only one the remainder of a fast-paced half by Mercer; the Bears took a 43-30 lead to the half.
Mercer stretched its lead to 68-44 with 8:59 remaining, but the Bulldogs scraped back with a 16-6 run over the next four minutes. Fueled by dunks and an electric crowd, Mercer held off The Citadel’s comeback and won 88-72.
– Players ran onto the court wearing black warm-up shirts with the following on the front:
“Walk by faith not by sight..
Life is about how you overcome adversity thrown your way..
Will you fold or stand like a man?”
And the following on the back:
Together We Will
– Sophomore Jordan Strawberry and freshman Ethan Stair earned starts with the absence of Lewis and Ringer.
– Andrew Fishler recorded season and career highs in points (20) and rebounds (10) as a Bear in only 19 minutes. The Citadel could not handle the 7-foot-1 redshirt junior, as its tallest player on the roster is 6-foot-8.
– Demetre Rivers didn’t only make flashy plays. The sophomore was effective, recording 16 points, one shy of his career high that he set when the Bears played The Citadel Jan. 9. He also chipped in nine rebounds.
– Four players scored in double figures — Fishler, Rivers, Phillip Leonard with 12 and Stephon Jelks with 10.
– Sophomore Niklas Ney was not on the bench Saturday.
– Demetre Rivers threw down a thunderous one-handed slam with 8:06 remaining in the first half that set off the 4,772-person crowd, which was a record for Hawkins Arena. The Bears were high-flying early, as it was the fourth dunk of the game at that point.
– Every player dressed for Mercer took the court by the 8:35 mark in the first half.
– The Bears ran up-and-down the court in the first twenty minutes, registering 10 fast break points in a 43-point half; The Citadel connected on only 29.4 percent of its shots in the first half as it attempted 21 3-pointers and 13 2-pointers.
– For the game, the Bulldogs attempted 43 3-pointers and connected on 11. Mercer also outscored The Citadel 54-24 in the paint as well as a rebounding advantage of 60-36, a program record for rebounds in a single-game.
What’s the inside scoop:
Rivers on making the opening corner 3: “It was definitely big. I feel like everything done tonight was just for (Jibri). I feel like everything moving on from now is going to be for (Jibri). Making shots out there, I just dedicate it all to him.”
Rivers on win: “I think the key was just staying focused through all the adversity coming into this week with everything that happened. I think just us staying together, bonding… We stayed a couple nights at Coach’s house. I think that was a big key.”
Rivers on mindset without Lewis: “I tried to be more aggressive with my shot more, take whatever the defense gives me (and) take whatever my teammates set me up with.”
Rivers on one-handed dunk: “It was really just all on the fly. I cut, and I think it was Jordan who passed it to me, and as soon as I looked up, I saw the whole lane. I just wanted to rip the rim off… I wanted to get one for (Jibri).”
Fishler on win: “Key was just to come out and stay together. Main thing Coach has been telling us is, ‘Together we will.’ So we have to stay together through the thick and the thin time, so we came out and played for each other.”
Fishler on career game: “Just knowing we were out three players, so I knew I had to step up for my team and play through it.”
Head coach Bob Hoffman on responding to adversity: “I’m so excited for our guys and university and our staff on how they gave so much energy, and we were very tired at the end… It was just amazing over and over again how our guys competed. I mentioned to them that before the game that if we could find a way to win tonight, that this would be one of the best — right up there with every good win I’ve had. I’ve been fortunate to be in a lot of special wins, but this would beat that. Thirty-six years of coaching, and I told them after the game it was just an amazing moment.”
Hoffman on Fishler: “Fishler was amazing… Fun to see him get all the fruits of the labor he’s been working all year. I haven’t given him as many opportunities, and he was ready today. Our guys kept finding him, and he kept finishing.”
Hoffman on preparing for Chattanooga: “It’ll be really hard for us. Chattanooga is a great team. We understand that. I know our guys are really spent right now. We’ll try to re-group a little bit tomorrow and figure out what exactly we’re going to do. We probably won’t do a whole lot, but eat a little bit, try to rest some and get some energy in our tank so we can come out and play a tremendous team here.”
Hoffman on record-setting crowd: “Thank you for all of Middle Georgia showing up and making a difference in supporting our team… The energy (was) amazing in the building. Helps us get through those walls, and it happened again tonight.”
Mercer hosts Chattanooga Monday. The Bears fell to the Mocs 74-62 in the first meeting.