There were questions if Mercer, with a worn down starting lineup having played two close games in two days, would have enough in the tank against a deeper and more athletic East Tennessee State team.
The Bears did. They just didn’t have enough at the free-throw line, and that may be where their NCAA dreams died.
Mercer had chances to get over the hump against ETSU but sabotaged those efforts in part with a 14-of-23 night at the line and lost 72-66 Saturday in the A-Sun tournament championship game at the University Center.
It took all the energy left in the body of senior James Florence, who along with Danny Emerson and Jeff Smith, was given a curtain call in the final seconds, to get off the bench and make the handshake line. He had tears in his eyes upon arrival at the postgame interview room.
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Florence scored nine points in his final game at Mercer while Emerson had nine points and 13 rebounds.
Senior E.J. Kusnyer led the Bears (16-17) with 16 points while junior Brandon Moore chipped in 13.
Justin Tubbs paced ETSU (20-14) with 18, including some clutch points late. Tommy Hubbard had 14, Micah Williams 13, Isiah Brown 12 and Adam Sollazzo 11.
“It comes down to players,” ETSU head coach Murry Bartow said after winning his second straight tournament title. “Very little coaching involved in a game like this. It comes down to you better have good players and those good players better make plays.
“And I’ve got good players, and they made big plays. That’s what it comes down to.”
ETSU’s defensive plan was the difference.
“That was the first time they had zoned us for an entire game,” Florence said. “That was pretty different. Then they trapped Danny out of the zone, which they hadn’t done.”
Emerson had company all evening, leading to four turnovers.
“I really struggled with their traps, especially early on,” he said. “It’s just frustrating to go out on a night like this. I rebounded pretty well, didn’t shoot very well from the field, didn’t finish around the basket, had too many turnovers.
“It’s tough to go out on a game like that.”
The arena again wasn’t quite filled to capacity, but it again sounded like it, courtesy of another rowdy collection of painted, wigged, sign-carrying and energized students as well as more vocal non-students. It was another emotional game, with players separated at halftime and refs sprinting to stifle more potential disagreements and both coaches getting more than their money’s chewing out the refs.
And it was another thriller with, four ties and four lead changes and only a brief advantage greater than 10, when ETSU led by 11 in the first half. After that, it was a three-possession game or less.
And the Bears will look at opportunities wasted, but Emerson didn’t think it was one that got away.
“They had a good defensive game plan,” Emerson said. “I’m not going to say we just gave it to them. We had a few too many turnovers.”
Mercer was a 70.6-percent team from the line during the year, tied for second in the A-Sun, but ended the season at 60.9-percent, including 8-for-16 second half.
“I don’t think it was legs,” Kusnyer said of a possible fatigue factor. “We can’t blame anybody but ourselves. We shot free throws all morning. Whether it’s legs or not, it’s a free shot with no one guarding you.
“A stage like this, I don’t think that comes into play, just because you’re playing with so much adrenaline that you don’t have time to think about being tired.”
The free-throw bug nipped all the Bears and at tough times.
“Over and over, the games we’ve won that have been big games, that’s what we’ve done, finished at the free-throw line,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said.
Florence didn’t get his first basket from the floor Friday until 1:26 remained en route to only eight points. His first score from the floor Saturday was a 3-pointer with 15:19 remaining in the game to give the Bears a 42-41 lead.
It didn’t last long, and ETSU took advantage of a few turnovers for a 48-42 lead.
Hoffman gambled and returned Mills to the game at the 11:28 mark with four fouls, and he lasted 2:03 before getting a tough whistle for his fifth and the Bears trailing 50-47.
As with Mercer’s tournament games against Belmont and Jacksonville, the championship overflowed with drama, momentum changes, big plays and calls that drew loud disagreement.
For most of the second half, ETSU rebuffed Mercer’s attempts to take the lead, unless the Bears threw the chance away with a turnover, bad shot or missed free throws. The Bears had a 1-for-6 stretch from the line in the second half.
Then came a break for Mercer when Brown fouled out on a little hip bump on Moore, who scored to get within one and naturally missed the free throw with 4:08 left.
But in the long run, Mercer couldn’t take advantage.
The Bears tied it at 60 with 2:11 left when Smith went 1-of-2 from the line, and Williams made both of his. Then Kusnyer hit half of his free throws, and Tubbs countered with a huge 3-pointer at the 1:18 mark for a 65-61 lead.
And air started leaving the building.
“We felt like we’d just get it, get the ball with a tie game or with the lead, we could take control of the game,” Emerson said. “Every time we tied it up or had a chance to tie it up, either we’d miss a big free throw or miss a shot to tie it up. The few times we did tie it up, they came right back down. We couldn’t get the stop, get the ball back.”
Smith was called for a charge, and Sollazzo made two free throws. Kusnyer revived the crowd with an off-balance 3-pointer with 40 seconds remaining and Tubbs missed a free throw to keep the door open.
Emerson drained both free throws with 34.3 seconds left, but so did Tubbs less than two seconds later.
Florence tried a tough inbounds pass from the right corner to Emerson on an inbounds, and it was tipped away by Williams to Sollazzo, and that was it.
“We knew everybody was going to be pumped up, and we knew it was going to be a tough one,” Emerson said. “That’s exactly what it was. They gave us their best shot, and we tried to do the same.”