A heavyweight bout was expected.
And a heavyweight bout, basketball style, was more than delivered Friday night from Mercer and Jacksonville, with 13 ties and 13 lead changes in front of another raucous crowd at the University Center.
And after 40 enthralling minutes, Mercer was still standing.
James Florence hit two free throws with 15 seconds left and then the Bears’ defense took over and gave Jacksonville no good looks to hold on for a 66-63 win over the Dolphins in the A-Sun conference tournament semifinals.
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And now the Bears are 40 minutes from exchanging their high tops for dancing shoes. Mercer will play East Tennessee State at 6 p.m. today for the A-Sun’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Danny Emerson turned in another mammoth performance with 21 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes while Jeff Smith added 18 points.
"Exhausted. I don't know that I've ever been more tired than now," Emerson said. "The last time I actually played three games in a conference tournament, I was a freshman at Western Kentucky and I was playing about 13 minutes a game. I was still pretty fresh.
"This is just exhausting. I enjoy it for about the first half hour after the game. The last 30 minutes have just been crazy. It's just been a joyous occasion. I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night."
Florence had only seven points, all in the second half.
Ben Smith topped Jacksonville with 19 points. Ayron Hardy added 13 and Lehmon Colbert 11.
After Florence’s late free throws, Jacksonville went downcourt and faced traps and double teams.
Florence blocked Ben Smith’s shot, but the Dolphins got it back. Tevin Galvin’s long shot caromed into Brandon Moore’s hands and the second celebration in as many nights was on, but it tough to get there for the Bears
Jacksonville went on a run and turned an eight-point deficit into a two-point lead with 6:25 left in the game, and it was back and forth again.
Emerson’s left-handed up-and-under bucket and free throw put the Bears up 61-58 with 3:54 left.
Jacksonville went through a 1-for-5 stretch at the line, preventing the Dolphins from taking the lead.
After the fifth miss, E.J. Kusnyer missed and Brian Mills got the rebound. He was stuffed trying to score, but the Bears had a new shot clock.
Florence chose a good time for his first bucket from the floor, taking Emerson’s kickout pass — as three Dolphins smothered him down low - for a 3-pointer and 64-60 lead with 1:24 remaining.
Ben Smith made one at the line with 1:08 left, and then Jeff Smith fell down with the ball, but got the timeout with two seconds left on the shot clock and 34.7 overall.
"That's the best 40 minutes of defense I've seen in college. Western Kentucky, Mercer," Emerson said. "That's as good a defense as I've seen since I don't know when at Mercer."
And Emerson's the youngest of three, so he's seen a lot of defense at Mercer.
Mercer will hold a pregame tailgate party/pep rally on the plaza outside the University Center beginning at 4:30 p.m. today.
Fans are invited to join the Mercer cheerleaders and pep band for food, music and a healthy dose of Mercer Bears spirit prior to the championship game tipoff at 6 p.m. There is no charge for the event.