Danny Emerson was ready, willing and able.
He was going to play.
He did a little bit more than just play, and so did his teammates.
Emerson’s basket and free throw capped a 34-minute comeback and sparked Mercer to an 87-81 win Thursday night over Belmont in a men’s A-Sun tournament game at the University Center.
Mercer (14-15) now faces Jacksonville in the semifinals at 9 p.m. today
Emerson pulled Mercer even, and Jeff Smith gave the Bears their first lead with a 3-pointer from the left side with 4:19 left in the game.
He countered two free throws with a power bucket off of Brandon Moore’s feed for another three-point margin.
Emerson got Smith’s free-throw miss, and that set up his own bucket off a lob from Smith, and the Bears led by six.
James Florence then went coast to coast after grabbing a bad pass, and the Bears led by eight with 1:35 left.
This time, Belmont had to work on the comeback, and Moore put a cap on it with a slam off of E.J. Kusnyer’s feed with 1:06 left.
Ian Clark hit a 3-pointer, Florence lost the ball, and Kerron Johnson made two free throws to pull Belmont within 81-79 with 44.5 seconds left. Florence was fouled with no time coming off the clock, made one, and Jon House made it an 82-81 game with 29.3 seconds.
Florence then made both with 19 seconds left for an 84-81 lead. Belmont called time three seconds later, but junior guard Mark Hall tipped away an entry pass, and Smith was fouled with 7.5 seconds left and a three-point lead.
He made both foul shots, and the celebration began for one of Mercer’s most improbable victories — against an opponent that has owned the Bears — in a long time.
A week after suffering an eye injury late in the Bears’ 77-73 loss at Belmont, Emerson’s status was publicly questionable, although few doubted that he would play.
The only sign that anything was wrong with Emerson was the pair of goggles he wore.
They offered no resistance to him grabbing Mercer’s first five rebounds. He finished with 19 points and nine rebounds in 36 minutes..
Florence led Mercer with 24 points, while Smith had 16 and Moore 13.
A-Sun freshman of the year Ian Clark led Belmont with 19 points, and Drew Hanlen set a career best with four 3-pointers en route to 16 points.
It was a tense game. In the first half, Florence appeared to refuse assistance off the floor after being fouled hard. In the second half, Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman almost had to be restrained after an offensive foul call against Florence.
It was charged later after trailing by 10 points with 13:28 left in the game, Mercer walked off its own floor after its first A-Sun tournament win since 2003.
Mercer spent the game in a familiar position against Belmont: behind and struggling mightily to get even. The trend of Mercer-Belmont games going down to the wire seemed in jeopardy when the Bruins nailed their first five 3-pointers for a 12-point lead after the teams managed all of 10 points by the first media timeout at the 15:24 mark.
Mercer struggled to figure out how to attack on offense and guard on defense as the Bruins made eight of their first 12 shots.
Belmont entered with three games of 50 percent or better on 3-pointers: 56.3 against Middle Tennessee, 51.9 against East Tennessee State and 50 percent against Mercer a week earlier.
The Bruins cooled and the Bears warmed up.
The hosts were down 33-20 and had just finished an empty trip when Smith hit a turnaround in the lane. Then Mercer found the range with 3-pointers from Emerson and Florence, and suddenly Mercer was within 33-32 at the 4:39 mark.
Mercer couldn’t get the momentum basket on offense or stop on defense, and the Bruins regained a two-possession lead and were on top 44-38 at halftime.
Belmont had cooled off to 8-of-17 on 3-pointers while Mercer was up to 50 percent on 3s and overall. A 3-for-8 first half from the free-throw line didn’t help the Bears’ cause.
Florence had 11 points and Emerson six rebounds at the break, but Belmont had a 22-17 rebounding edge.
Belmont reopened a double-digit lead less than three minutes into the second half, using only one 3-pointer to do so. The Bruins completely lost the touch from long range and went 2-for-12 on 3-pointers in the second half.
Mercer welcomed that, and made the Bruins pay for one of the Bears’ most stirring wins in years.