GRANT BLANKENSHIP/THE TELEGRAPH Mercer's Bud Thomas shoots a layup off a fast break in the second period of Mercer's 69-58 win over the University of North Florida Saturday in Macon.
There was little doubt the game would be a grinding, bruising halfcourt and defensive affair.
But Mercer adapted to North Florida’s defense on guard Langston Hall and took enough control late for a 69-58 win Saturday afternoon in A-Sun basketball action at the University Center.
An announced crowd of 2,951, Mercer’s largest of the season, might not have known in the second half that it was watching the A-Sun’s co-leader in action.
Mercer’s players found out afterward that they now share the conference lead with Belmont, courtesy of USC Upstate’s 79-78 comeback upset of the Bruins earlier Saturday in Spartanburg, S.C.
Lipscomb prevented East Tennessee State from joining Mercer and Belmont at the top, the Bison dumping the Bucs 73-65 in Johnson City in a tipoff 30 minutes before Mercer and North Florida.
“That’s good, but we’ve got to take them one game at a time,” Hall said. “We’ll enjoy it for the night. We just have to come to play every night.”
The Bears won their third straight and sixth in their past seven games, improving to 14-7 overall and 6-2 in A-Sun play. North Florida lost its fourth in a row to fall to 9-12 and 3-5.
Mercer won’t have any time to enjoy sharing that lead with rival Jacksonville coming to the University Center on Monday night. And the Bears got everything they expected from the Ospreys.
“A lot of those guys played for the (A-Sun tournament) championship on this floor a year ago,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “You know they had good feelings about being in here. They get after you.”
Hall was a focal point of North Florida, especially in the first half.
“They come at you, trying to speed you up, try to take you out of your offense,” said Hall, who managed seven points but had only two turnovers in 32 minutes. “You have to just play, and that’s what we did. Just execute.”
Daniel Coursey led Mercer with 13 points while Travis Smith added 12 -- both coming in 15 minutes each -- while Jake Gollon chipped in 10.
Coursey’s time was limited because of foul trouble, but he was still effective, adding four blocks to his stat line, and he didn’t foul out.
“It does feel pretty good,” Coursey said. “Finally my shots starting to get decent. I wish I could stay in the game longer.”
Monty Brown led Mercer with seven rebounds, helping the Bears to a 40-30 edge on the glass.
“They’re getting better and better,” Hall said of the 6-foot-11 Coursey and 6-10 Brown. “Coursey made some great post moves. And Monty came in, made some great moves, hit some big free throws, got some big rebounds.”
Mercer had only a 29-27 lead at halftime despite outshooting North Florida 42.9-33.3 percent, holding an eight-rebound edge and watching the Ospreys go pedestrian 8-for-15 half at the line. The Bears countered with 3-of-6 at the line, and both teams struggled from long range, combining for a 3-for-20 half on 3-pointers.
“They tried to take Langston away by running traps at him,” Hoffman said. “The first half, it kind of panicked us when we were trying to run stuff. It kind of took us out of our game plan.”
The second half proved to be a little less grinding.
North Florida tied it six minutes into the half, but Mercer regained the lead despite the Ospreys shooting 50 percent through the first six minutes. Threes from Smith and Gollon helped Mercer expand the cushion a little bit.
“We stayed the course against the pressure and the traps when they were trying to get it out of (Hall’s) hands,” Hoffman said. “I thought we were real consistent about getting good shots.”
Gollon split a trip at the line to put the Bears up 59-49 with 5:55 remaining, Mercer’s first double-digit lead since the 10:34 mark of the first half.
The pace slowed and execution digressed a bit, and the Ospreys were within 61-54 at the 3:56 mark, but the Bears sealed the deal.
“It really comes down to defense,” Hoffman said. “We guarded them. We just had all kinds of stops at the end. Our pressure on the guards was fantastic.”