Photo provided by Mercer Athletics
The Mercer Bears (10-10, 3-4) were without injured leading scorer Ria’n Holland in Saturday’s SoCon matchup with the UNCG Spartans (14-5, 5-1), owners of three straight wins over the Bears. It was the best team the Bears had played since their home loss to ETSU on Dec. 31, 2017.
The absence of Holland was evident on the offensive end early for Mercer. His ability to knock down shots from anywhere on the court makes the defense focus on him, in turn making it easier for the rest of the team to score.
Both teams struggled in the opening five minutes, with the teams combining for just 6 points stalemated at 3-3. Mercer eventually ran up a 12-5 lead with 12:24 to play.
That run was answered by the Spartans who were able to cut the Mercer lead down to one with 7:33 to play.
Mercer led 16-15 with 4:48 to play, as both teams continued to struggle shooting the ball. Mercer was not helping itself either, turning the ball over eight times in the first half, while the Spartans turned it over just four times.
The final minutes of the first half were more of the same. Both teams struggled to make shots, and the halftime score read 24-23 with the Bears on top.
It was the lowest point total for the Bears on the season. The Bears shot just 8-of-21 from the field, and 2-7 from beyond the arc. Demetre Rivers led the team in scoring with eight points, while Stephon Jelks led in rebounding with five. While Mercer led for most of the first half, it’s largest lead was just seven points early on. The Bears were never able to pull away.
In the second half, both teams’ offenses settled in and began to knock down shots. UNCG opened the half with a 7-0 run to take a 30-24 lead with 18 minutes to play.
Both teams traded baskets over the next four minutes, with UNCG answering each Mercer basket with a basket of their own. Every time Mercer would grab the momentum, the Spartans would grab it right back with a late in the shot clock three pointer, or big stop on defense.
With 9:05 to play, Jelks knocked down a three pointer to cut the Spartans lead down to three at 41-38. Again, the Spartans answered with a three pointer to push the lead back to six with 8:36 left in the second half.
The Spartans defense in the second half was giving the Bears clear problems. Each time the Bears would cross half court, the Spartans would double-team, and it gave the Bears fits. Over the opening 10 minutes, the Bears turned the ball over six times which led to five points for the Spartans.
Junior guard Ethan Stair, thrown into the starting lineup to replace Holland, knocked down a huge three pointer with 7:18 to go. The Bears had once again cut the UNCG lead down to one possession. Could the Bears take advantage?
After a couple of empty possessions by both teams, UNCG’s Alonso hoisted up a prayer of a three pointer, and knocked it down with 4:10 to go. Just 30 seconds later, Alonso striked again, knocking down a jump shot to extend the Spartans lead to seven with 3:39 to go.
This forced a Mercer timeout, as the team looked to regroup for a late push on the road. This was not an unusual predicament for the Bears to be in, as they had played in seven road games decided by less than 10 points already this season, going 1-6 in those games.
Mercer answered out of the timeout with a Stair layup to cut the lead down to five with 3:26 to play. Once again the Spartans answered with a make of their own and the Bears trailed by seven with 3:02 to go.
The Mercer defense got stops down the stretch, but the Bears offense lacked. The Bears were able to cut the lead down to five with 48 seconds to go after guard Marcus Cohen made two free throws.
Mercer opted to foul the Spartans to stop the clock, and they answered with two free throws of their own to put them up 53-46 with 45 seconds left.
The Bears still had some fight in them. Coach Hoffman inserted guard Ross Cummings into the game, and it paid off. He knocked down a big three pointer with 38 seconds left, and the Bears cut the lead to four with 37 seconds left.
Mercer’s defense went into press to get a turnover, and they got it in the form of an offensive foul. Mercer inbounded to Ross Cummings, and he knocked down ANOTHER three pointer. The Bears were within ONE point with 34 seconds left.
Mercer opted to foul again, and the Spartans knocked down two more free throws to put them up three. Cohen brought the ball down the floor for the Bears, kicked it out to Jelks, and he knocked down a three! The game was tied with just 19 seconds to go.
The Spartans held for the final shot, and missed it behind strong defense from Cohen. The Bears were heading to their third overtime game of the year. The Spartans had led this game by seven with 40 seconds left, and Mercer came back to send this game to overtime.
The first two minutes of overtime were slow before UNCG’s Demetrius Troy knocked down a pull up jumper to put them up two with three minutes to go.
A Mercer miss gave the Spartans the ball back, and Troy knocked down a three pointer to put them up 60-55 with two minutes to play. Once again the Bears missed and UNCG drew a foul, went to the line and knocked down two free throws. With 1:36 left in overtime, Mercer trailed UNCG 62-55.
On the next possession, the Bears turned it over and were forced to foul with 1:22 to go. UNCG’s James Dickey knocked down 1-of-2 free throws, and on the next possession the Bears missed a free three pointer. With a minute left, UNCG was up 63-55.
Mercer fouled, but UNCG missed and the Bears had a glimpse of life. On the offensive end, Cummings drew a foul, went to the line, and knocked down two free throws to cut the lead to six with 53 seconds. Mercer fouled again, UNCG made 1-of-2 free throws, and Mercer got on the fast break for a Jordan Strawberry layup. The Bears trailed 64-59 with 40 seconds to go.
After two possessions of Mercer fouling, the Spartans making both free throws, and Mercer followed up with free throws of their own, Mercer trailed by seven with 29 seconds left. Strawberry brought the ball up the floor, dribbled around, and knocked down a three to cut the lead to four with 13 seconds left.
Another trip to the line for the Spartans after a Mercer foul, and they made 1-of-2 to extend the lead to five. The Bears drove the ball up the floor without any timeouts, drew the fall, and Cohen put home two free throws to cut the lead to three with six seconds left.
Mercer fouled, and UNCG made a free throw to seal the deal on the Bears comeback effort. When the buzzer sounded, Mercer had come up short 70-66 on the road.
It was the true definition of a team effort for the Bears on Saturday, as four players scored in double figures. Jelks contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth consecutive double-double, while Rivers and Cummings both tallied 11 points on the night. Stair also contributed 10 points and 7 rebounds in place of the injured Holland.
After having won three straight conference games, this is obviously a tough loss for the Bears. While they were without their leading scorer, who clearly makes a difference on the court, they still gave themselves a chance in overtime, but couldn’t pull it out in the end.
The next game for the Bears will be Wednesday, Jan. 24 when they travel to Johnson City, Tennessee for a matchup with SoCon frontrunner ETSU. The Buccaneers defeated the Bears by 19 points at Hawkins Arena earlier this season. The game is set for tip-off at 7 p.m. (ET) and will air live on ESPN3.