LOGAN, Utah Mercers young basketball team had the best season in school history.
And with a shot at making school history on the line, the young Bears made sure they didnt end their season with a loss.
Travis Smith fueled a heroic rally down the stretch after Utah State had taken control of the momentum and the scoreboard to give Mercer a 70-67 win over the Aggies and the CollegeInsider.com tournament championship Wednesday.
Thats how we did it all year, Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. They just believed in a high level in each other.
The win Mercers third road victory in a weeks time - capped an amazing 27-11 season for Hoffmans squad. While the CIT might not have been the tournament the Bears most wanted to be in, they couldnt have been more happy about adding five wins to their remarkable season.
This is a huge deal, Smith said after leading the Bears with 17 points off the bench. Weve got a lot of guys coming back and were expecting big things next year.
Mercer also got 16 points, six rebounds and four assists from tournament MVP Langston Hall while Bud Thomas added 10. Winning at Utah State, one of the top mid-major programs in the country, was no easy task, but Mercer didnt shy away from the challenge.
The Bears showed no sign of nerves as they played their third road game in a week. Taking advantage of eight Utah State (21-16) turnovers and some timely offensive rebounds, Mercer seized control of the game early and posted a 31-22 lead at the half.
Hall paced the Bears with eight points at the break as Hoffman went to his bench frequently to prevent his team from getting winded in the high elevation of Utah.
The Aggies, who scored 60 points in the first half against Oakland in the CIT semifinal, struggled mightily on offense as Mercers defense limited USU to just 31.8 percent shooting in the first half.
The Aggies rallied, closing the gap to 41-38, but Mercer didnt back down despite the shift in momentum. With a loud crowd of Aggies faithful bearing down on the game, Mercer turned back Utah States rally and drew a couple of key fouls to regain control and calmly played its game.
We went back to what we do and executed our style of basketball, Hoffman said.
But Utah State got three consecutive dunks from forward Kyisean Reed to close the gap to 48-47 with 6:45 to play and set the stage for an intense conclusion.
Utah State took a 57-54 lead only to have Smith rise to the occasion.
After that, Hoffman said. We did a good job of just holding our composure and playing the kind of basketball were used to playing.
Smith answered that with huge baskets down the stretch to lift the Bears back into the lead and Mercer iced the game with solid free throw shooting from Langston Hall and Justin Cecil.
We kept believing in each other, Smith said. We knew we just had to stay focused and not get rattled.
The Bears held Utah State to just 41.5 percent shooting in the game and, despite shooting just 40.4 themselves, made all the little plays they needed to down the stretch especially at the free throw line where Mercer went 14-of-17 in the second half -- to hang on for the win.
You have to believe you can win this tournament when they win three games on the road, Utah State head coach Stew Morrill said. They just played smarter than us and that was basically the biggest difference. Theyve won 27 ballgames for a reason; theyre a good team.
Utah State was led by Reeds 15 points and seven rebounds. Preston Medlin added 14, Danny Berger had 13 and Brockeith Pane added 10 for the Aggies.
Cecil, the only senior on the Bears' roster, finished his collegiate career with six points and six rebounds. The rest of the Mercer roster is set to return, and the Bears have an A-Sun title and NCAA tournament appearance in their sights.
This is a great win for our program, Hoffman said. I couldnt be more proud of the team. I was just the bus driver along for the ride.
And what a ride it was.