For awhile, the University Center was a woodshed, and USC Upstate was taking Mercer there.
The first 10 minutes may have been Mercer’s ugliest of the season, and the opening 15 minutes were almost as bad, with the Bears trailing by 19 points and the Spartans treating the baskets as their own.
“Why are they making these shots?” Danny Emerson said, describing what he was wondering. “Why aren’t we making any?”
A humiliating home loss to a team only a few years into Division I competition and ineligible for the A-Sun tournament seemed Mercer’s fate.
A rousing comeback, however, was Mercer’s destiny.
The Bears overcame a 12-point halftime deficit, got the lead back with 13 minutes remaining and never let go in fending off USC Upstate 83-69 Monday night at the UC in A-Sun men’s basketball.
The Bears regrouped from a humbling 66-63 loss at Kennesaw State and picked up some momentum for a tough ETSU-Campbell road trip this weekend, improving to 12-12 overall and 8-6 in the conference.
USC Upstate fell to 4-19 and 4-9.
Jeff Smith led Mercer with 22 points, and Brandon Moore had 16 points off the bench.
James Florence scored 15 and had seven rebounds and five steals. Emerson added a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds, with junior Brian Mills contributing 10 points.
Ryan LeGates topped the Spartans with 14, with Carter Cook adding 13.
Through 13 minutes, USCU had almost doubled Mercer on the scoreboard — 25-13 — and was doubling the hosts in shooting, 64.3-26.3 percent while holding a slight rebound lead. The starters were pulled en masse after only a few minutes.
“That was pretty ugly,” Florence said. “We’ve been feeding off the crowd the last few home games, and we finally got a smaller crowd. We can’t let that dictate our play.”
The score got worse even as the Spartans cooled off. The margin went from 27-18 to 37-18 in less than two minutes, thanks to three straight 3-pointers and a rare four-point play when David O’Shaughnessey floored LeGates on a made bomb and LeGates made the freebie.
“We were taking quick shots, not necessarily executing the offense we practice every day,” Emerson said. “And when they’d miss, terrible bounces. Long rebounds would go right back to ‘em, they’d kick it out and knock down a 3.”
That gave the Spartans a 37-18 lead with 4:53 left in the first half.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Moore said. “We came out so sluggish.”
Moore’s three-point play and Florence’s drive got the Bears moving forward a little bit, although the margin crept back to 16 in no time. Smith’s 3-pointer with four seconds left pulled Mercer to within a respectable 47-35 deficit at halftime.
“That was a big shot for Jeff,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “He got going after that. The second half, he was great.”
But still, it was a weak first half.
“Ugly,” Emerson described the halftime gathering as. “That was one (hacked) off head coach, and 13 kinda frustrated/baffled players trying to figure out what is possibly going on.”
Something clicked at the break.
First, however, Hoffman got a technical foul — he was warned “no more” barely eight minutes into the game — and Josh Chavis hit the free throws for a 51-39 lead with 18:06 left.
And then it was on.
Smith and E.J. Kusnyer hit 3s and Mills slammed it off Florence’s feed, and suddenly it was 51-47 at the first media timeout. Emerson’s putback after Mills was blocked got the Bears to within a bucket, and Mills made USCU pay for its second straight turnover by tying it with two free throws at the 14:03 mark.
Kusnyer’s 3 from the left corner was all net, and the Bears improbably had the lead, which Moore and Smith added to with 3s for a 60-52 advantage
Now, could the same Mercer team that trailed by 19 and got the lead keep it?
Florence getting his fourth foul with 9:44 left and his team up by eight added to the suspense.
“I didn’t have any doubt about that,” Emerson said. “Flo is obviously our primary offensive weapon. When he gets in foul trouble, this year we have Jeff to run the point. Our offense will continue.”
USCU came within three twice, but Mercer was still on.
Florence drove the right side twice and lofted two soft layups off the glass — one over 7-foot-3 Nick Schneiders — and Smith took the pass from Emerson on the block and hit a 3 for a 72-62 lead with 4:50 to go.
Mercer kept the comeback quiet for a 33-point turnaround.
It gave the Bears some extra sack time. Hoffman’s thoughts while trailing by 19?
”6 a.m. practice,” he said. “Oh yeah.”