Brian Mills was able to smile a little bit as he stood on the University Center floor with his family and some friends.
About half an hour earlier, he was by far the most heartbroken of the 3,300 or so people in the arena.
The senior from Douglasville was set to take a pass from Brandon Moore and do what he has done so often during his career at Mercer.
“I was ready for it,” Mills said. “I knew it was coming to me. I tried to catch it and go up with it before I had it. Aw, man. Oh God, I thought I was about to hammer it, and this place was ready to go nuts.”
But Mills couldn’t get a grip on the pass, it rolled out of bounds with four seconds left, and Georgia survived Mercer’s best performance of the year for a thrilling 56-53 win over the Bears before an overflow crowd at the University Center.
“A brutal feeling, man,” Mills said. “A brutal feeling.”
The Bears gave the Bulldogs a battle in front of an audience that was just about split.
“Mercer’s a good team, it was a great atmosphere,” Georgia forward Trey Thompkins said. “They forced us to play. They played great. They played sound basketball. It took every punch we had to win the game.”
Georgia won its sixth straight to improve to 9-2 while Mercer fell to 3-8.
Both teams will welcome some Christmas rest after Thursday night.
Thompkins nailed a 3-pointer and followed with a three-point play sparked a 12-0 run that finally returned Georgia to the lead, 49-48 with 4:52 left.
“Finally we started to settle down and play,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “But it took us a long time.”
The Bears bowed up and kept answering.
Mills got an offensive rebound off a Langston Hall miss inside the final two minutes, but Mercer couldn’t convert and Georgia’s Jeremy Price was fouled on the rebound with 51.7 seconds to go and made one for a 54-53 lead.
Mills was called for walking 26 seconds later, but Gerald Robinson couldn’t hold onto the inbounds and Mercer got it back with 18.6 seconds remaining.
Jeff Smith drove into a mass of Bulldogs in the paint and lost it, but off Georgia. Moore got the inbounds on the wing and drove but dished to Mills, who couldn’t hold on to the ball, and it rolled out of bounds.
“He would have dunked it if he could have caught it,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “But he hit some awesome shots, or we wouldn’t have been in that position.”
Travis Leslie made two free throws with 2.4 seconds left and then Thompkins intercepted in the inbounds to seal it.
Mills led all scorers with 21 points to go with 12 rebounds. Moore added 10 points.
Leslie and Thompkins had 20 points each for the Bulldogs, who got 11 from Price. Former Dublin standout Sherrard Brantley didn’t have a great homecoming, going scoreless in 20 minutes of action.
The loss was unfortunately reminiscent of the Bears’ home loss to another in-state big-conference school. Mercer led Georgia Tech by 18 in the second half back on Nov. 22, 2008, before losing 66-62 in overtime.
This time, the Bears were up by 31-24 at halftime, weathered a few Georgia rallies and took a 48-37 lead with 8:33 left in the game on two Smith free throws.
Georgia traded buckets and possessions and made little headway for much of the second half until the final two minutes.
For a while, the University Center was Georgia’s home away from home as the Bulldogs cruised out to an 11-2 lead that grew to 19-6 on Thompkins’ drive with 12:35 left.
Mercer was on the verge of, it seemed, being run out of its own gym.
But Mark Hall drained a 3-pointer from straight ahead, then Moore added a three-point play less than 30 seconds later.
“We started the game pretty good,” Fox said. “Then (Mercer) really played well. We got in foul trouble and got frustrated with our play. We got behind. Credit Mercer for building the lead.”
Jake Gollon’s 3-pointer from the left finished a patient possession and made it a two-point game with 11:20 left. After Gollon’s putback tied it a minute later, the University Center was Mercer’s house again.
And Mercer just kept on rolling, to a 22-4 run for a 30-23 lead with 4:30 left in the first half. Georgia went scoreless for 5:40 en route to the 31-24 deficit.
The Bulldogs spent the second half trying to get that lead back, and were fortunate at the end.
“It wasn’t that play that lost the game,” said Langston Hall, whose team went dry for four minutes after getting the double-digit lead. “We had a lot of turnovers. We made a lot of mistakes. But we hustled and played hard the whole game.”