Photo provided by Mercer Athletics.
The Mercer men’s basketball squad (10-11, 3-5) came into its matchup with the East Tennessee State University Bucs (17-4, 8-0) still ailing after losing its leading scorer Ria’n Holland for at least 2-3 weeks to a hand injury. The Bears dropped their last game against UNCG in overtime just four days before, and the matchup with SoCon-leading ETSU was sure to be a challenge.
The first few minutes of the game looked good for the Bears. They were able to hang around and trade baskets with the Bucs, taking an 8-5 lead with 15:39 to go.
Mercer and ETSU continued to trade baskets over the next five minutes, with ETSU’s ability to knock down the three-pointer answering each Mercer momentum grab. With 10:18 left in the first half, the Bears trailed 17-16. Over the next three minutes, the Bucs went on a 9-5 run to take a five point lead, its’ largest lead of the first half.
Mercer hung tough, led by a few layups by freshman guard Marcus Cohen, and the Bears got to within one point with 4:22 to go.
The final minutes of the first half were filled with tit-for-tat baskets by the Bears and Mocs before Bucs guard Jalan McCloud knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer. At halftime, the Bears trailed ETSU 39-35.
The Bears were led in points by freshman Marcus Cohen with 10 points, along with one rebound and two assists. Senior forward Stephon Jelks contributed seven points and seven rebounds and Jordan Strawberry contributed eight points himself.
For the Mocs, guards Jalan McCloud and Devontavius Payne combined for 27 of the Bucs 39 points, including 7-of-11 from 3-point range. In comparison, the Bears only managed to knock down three.
The Bears cut the lead down to just two points with 18:46 to go, before the Mocs answered with a 5-0 run to go up 46-39 with 16:37 left. Each time the Bucs would open up a lead, the Bears claw back to keep themselves within striking distance.
Over the next 10 minutes, the margin stayed with five points. Both teams fought hard for every hint of momentum, but the Bucs continued to knock down tough 3-pointers that the Bears could not match.
With 6:31 left in the game, the Bucs took an eight point lead, their largest of the game. A quick answer by the Bears was answered a 5-0 run by the Bucs to take an 11 point lead with five minutes left. The Bears weren’t giving in just yet.
Five straight points from Stephon Jelks brought the Bears to within four points with two minutes left. It was the closest the Bears had been since 7:33 mark in the second half.
The Bears had their chances to win this game, but couldn’t execute on the offensive end when they needed to. With a minute to go, the Bears were forced to foul, and the Bucs made their free throws. When the final buzzer rang, the Bears had come up short in a tough road game, 84-75.
Bears forward Desmond Ringer had a huge game, going 9-of-9 from the field for 21 points, and managed four rebounds in 22 minutes. Stephon Jelks came up just short of another double-double, going for 14 points and nine rebounds. In his best performance of the season, Marcus Cohen scored 16 points and dished out five assists. The Bears went just 6-of-24 from beyond the arc.
While it was a tough loss for the Bears, Coach Hoffman was encouraged by his teams’ intensity and effort. Here’s what he had to say:
“I love my team and I love how they play. Our guys played with great intensity. We gave ourselves an opportunity. We only had four turnovers in the second half. We walked into a good home court advantage and we never backed down. I am proud of their effort tonight. This was a scrap and a fight; we just weren’t able to get it done. We’re working and while it’s not always leading to W’s, we’re getting better at what we’re doing.”
In their next game, the Bears return home to Hawkins Arena to host SoCon foe The Citadel on Saturday January 27 at 4 p.m. (ET). You can watch the game live on ESPN3, or listen live on the Mercer Sports Network radio station.