Bud Thomas and his teammates were aware that USC Upstate was picked to finish second in the A-Sun, didn’t quite live up to that but had just played a quality game the night before.
“They’re such a good team,” Thomas said. “And with the season riding on this one game, it’s going to be an all-out brawl. We knew that going in.”
Thomas was up to the fight, turning in a game-high 20 points and clutch plays galore to lead Mercer to a 72-64 win Friday night in the semifinals before a near-capacity crowd at Hawkins Arena.
“They’re a physical team,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “I know we’ll have some guys that’ll be sore after what we went through.”
Mercer improved to 23-10 entering Saturday’s A-Sun tournament title game against Florida Gulf Coast, the Bears’ second trip to the title game in four seasons. USC Upstate finished at 16-17.
The Bears have won 11 of their past 12 games, including 70-59 at USC Upstate. Mercer won 82-74 at home in January.
Neither was quite the show as the third meeting with the teams combining go 24-of-54 on 3-pointers, 44.4 percent.
USC Upstate’s Torrey Craig was 5-for-8, while Mercer’s Travis Smith (4-for-4), Langston Hall (5-for-11) and Thomas (3-for-6) helped the Bears to a 14-of-32 night from long distance, 43.8 percent.
Hall had 18 points and six assists while Smith added 15 points.
Craig had 20 for the Spartans, while Ty Greene added 14 and Adrian Rodgers 11. Ricardo Glenn had a game-high 10 rebounds.
Based on USC Upstate’s quality performance in Thursday night’s 76-62 romp over Jacksonville, the semifinal set up to be a basketball throwdown, and it was, with 10 ties and 10 lead changes, bodies flying and quality long-distance shooting on both sides.
Craig left the game for a few minutes after going down in a heap at the 2:38 mark of the second half after an offensive rebound and seemingly mild collision with the midsection of Mercer’s Daniel Coursey. Replays were inconclusive, and Thomas said Coursey thought Craig’s head might have hit his hip.
USC Upstate head coach Eddie Payne was blocked on the play and only saw Craig go to the ground. Payne said Craig had a headache, was a little woozy and was being evaluated.
Craig was down for about three minutes and returned with 85 seconds left, which Payne said might have been a mistake. Mercer led 63-59 at that point, and Craig didn’t take a shot the rest of the way.
Of course, he took more than enough for Mercer’s liking in the first 39 minutes.
“There’s only so much you can do against a player like that,” said Thomas, who covered Craig much of the night. “He’s long, he’s lanky, he creates space. I’m just trying to contest every shot.”
The Bears and Spartans hunkered down for a game of finesse and physicality, both teams using screens to get open underneath as well as from outside. With both possessing backcourt and frontcourt weapons, breathing room was nonexistent.
Thomas made a few plays that gave Hoffman a chance to show his vertical. A huge one came to stop a 10-0 run that put the Spartans up 47-44 nine minutes into the half.
Thomas missed a shot and the ball was batted around, Thomas in the middle of it. He won the battle, thought about a short drive but jumped and zipped a pass across the lane to Smith, who swished a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie it.
“I thought the energy play of the night was when he got on the floor after the ball bounced around on the floor,” said Hoffman, who got emotional a few minutes later talking about Thomas. “He got on the floor and we hit a shot. ... That was big.”
Then Thomas put Mercer ahead with a sweet up-and-under move on the block 50 seconds later. USC Upstate eked ahead only for Hall and Smith to bury 3s on consecutive trips. Craig, of course, answered for another tie.
Coursey scored on an inbounds pass, Thomas hit from 15 feet, and Coursey nailed a baby hook for a 63-57 lead with 1:39 left.
Smith, Thomas and Gollon were perfect on seven free throws in the final 46 seconds.
“Our game plan was to stop penetration, don’t let them get to the rim and go out and contest 3s,” Green said. “Sometimes you got to tip your cap to them. They hit 14 3s. That’s a lot. They shot the ball really well, they only missed one free throw.”
And Mercer was just a little better in the end.
“They made some good plays down the stretch,” Payne said. “They got a couple of good breaks down the stretch. Good teams do that.”