Mercer continues road trip at Georgia

mlough@macon.comDecember 20, 2011 

Who has their travel legs may be the biggest key.

Three days before Mercer would visit Athens, Georgia had to deal with a late Saturday night game at Southern California. The Bulldogs needed all 40 minutes before dispatching the Trojans, and then had to cross the country to return home, a trip that wasn’t the smoothest.

Of course, Mercer didn’t get back into Atlanta until Monday afternoon, taking advantage of a change in the schedule against Seton Hall to do some sight-seeing in New York City, primarily to visit Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial, among other places.

So sluggishness could be an could be an issue when the Bulldogs host the Bears Tuesday night in non-conference men's basketball.

The Bears (7-4) have a shorter turnaround to get ready for another opponent from a power conference, but they’ll have some confidence, as well.

“We have some tough games ahead,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “But they step into every game thinking they’re going to win.”

Overconfidence is something Georgia head coach Mark Fox doesn’t expect to be a problem for a team looking to display its identity and build momentum.

“We finally played pretty well offensively,” Fox said. “That’s something that’s been a struggle for us with as many new pieces as we have. So that’s probably the most pleasing part. That was a good step for us.”

Georgia broke a four-game losing streak with a good 63-59 road win and is facing an in-state rival that is coming off a loss and hasn't beaten Georgia since Jan. 10, 1959.

Mercer took Seton Hall to overtime on the road before losing 80-77 on Sunday.

“We were right there, right there,” Hoffman said. “Defensively, we took away a lot they were trying to accomplish. We held them to 39 percent from the field. That’s pretty good.”

Mercer trailed by 13 in the first half and led in the second.

“They were changing defenses a lot,” Hoffman said of the Pirates. “We started moving the ball a little better, changed up some of our offensive schemes of what we were trying to run against them, got to attacking them more.”

But the Bears couldn’t keep it going in overtime.

Senior Justin Cecil led Mercer on Sunday with 18 points, one of five Bears in double figures. Jake Gollon had a double double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

This is the second game of a five-game road swing for Mercer, which takes on Georgia Tech on Thursday in the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

After a break for Christmas, the Bears visit Tulsa on Dec. 28 and Navy on Dec. 30.

Georgia (5-5) welcomes Furman on Friday to continue a five-game homestand that concludes with the SEC opener on Jan. 7 against Alabama.

Mercer is No. 120 in the latest RPI, 30 spots below Georgia.

The Bears have lost to No. 66 Missouri, No. 86 South Dakota State, No. 98 Belmont and No. 5 Seton Hall.

Georgia has been beaten by No. 67 California, No. 29 Xavier, No. 89 Colorado, No. 164 Cincinnati and No. 110 Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs are finding their way without Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins, who teamed for 30.8 points and 14.8 rebounds a game last season. Jeremy Price was good for 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds.

“Each game has been a learning experience for us, whether we’ve won or lost,” Fox said. “I don’t know if there’s a game all year where we’re going to be evenly matched. We’ve got question marks in lots of places that we’re trying to answer. That’s the challenge of this year.”

Guards Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson are the lone returning starters, and former Dublin standout Sherrard Brantley and Connor Nolte are the only other returnees who saw at least 10 minutes a game in 2010-11.

“They have really good players at all the positions,” Hoffman said. “Their strengths are in a little different areas than they were last year. Their guards are playing at a high level.”

Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has lived up to his high school hype, leading the Bulldogs with 14.2 points a game and ranking third with 5.2 rebounds. The 6-5 guard leads Georgia with 30.8 minutes a game and has only four more turnovers than assists, but is struggling at the line (57.1 percent) and 3-point range (32.4 percent).

Returnee Donte Williams has quadrupled his minutes per game and is fourth with 6.8 points.

Georgia is deeper than a year ago, but has less experience, and it needed that in the meeting with Mercer.

“I don’t have one guy that made a basket in that game last year, a field goal, back,” Fox said. “We’re starting over in many ways.”

Leslie and Thompkins teamed for 40 of Georgia's points and 18 of the Bulldogs' 35 rebounds in the 56-53 win at the University Center.

Mercer led much of the game and was up by 11 with just less than nine minutes left, but was outscored 19-5 to end the game, missing a chance for a possible game-winning shot in the final seconds.

“I think they’re a much improved team, I really like their team,” Fox said of Mercer. “I think they’re playing well. I think they understand how they want to play, and that’s why they’re winning.”

Hoffman said his team is more than ready to get past good losses against big programs.

“The guys that were on that team are looking forward to the chance to get on the floor against them again,” Hoffman said. “We need to win some of these games. It’s always good to play well, but you want to win them.”

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