NORFOLK, Va. -- With his team trailing by 12 points early in the second half, Mercer coach Bob Hoffman went against dispensing tactical advice during a timeout and got straight to the point.
“All I told them was, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I want to win this sucker,’ ” Hoffman said.
The Bears got the message. And so the winningest season in Mercer men’s basketball history lives on.
Mercer survived Old Dominion’s surprising long-distance shooting assault, chased down the Monarchs and made big plays down the stretch to claim a 79-73 victory in the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament Wednesday at ODU’s Constant Center.
The victory increased Mercer’s school record victory total to 25 and vaulted the Bears into the CIT semifinals at Fairfield at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Suddenly, a team that nine days ago hadn’t won a postseason game in more than 100 years of basketball is talking about winning the whole tournament.
“Once we got the first (postseason) win, we really started to believe,” said Bears senior forward Justin Cecil, who led all scorers with 22 points and hit five of Mercer’s 11 3-pointers. “Now after his win, we definitely have a great shot, especially if we get to host again. I don’t think anyone can beat us at home.”
Mercer caught a break shortly before tipoff when ODU’s best player, senior swingman Kent Bazemore, was nowhere to be found. Monarchs head coach Blaine Taylor said he was informed five minutes before the team took the court that Bazemore, ODU’s leader in points, assists and steals, would not be available.
Late in the second half, the school said in a statement that Bazemore had been suspended for a possible conduct issue and that information was still being gathered.
The Monarchs nearly succeeded without their star. Although they typically make their living attacking the rim and feasting on second-chance points, the Monarchs stunned the Bears by hitting nine of their first 12 3-pointers in forging a five-point lead at halftime and a 47-35 advanage with 15:26 to play.
Still, the Bears didn’t panic, in part because they were convinced ODU couldn’t keep it up.
“We knew their strength wasn’t hitting 3s,” Cecil said. “And we knew if we just kept running our stuff, we’d get the better shots.”
It helped that the Bears were able to return fire with some bombs of their own. Three straight 3-pointers by Langston Hall helped the Bears close to within three at 61-58. An old-fashioned three-point play by Monty Brown with 2:50 remaining got the Bears even at 67. And after ODU’s Nick Wright made the front end of a 1-and-1 to nudge the Monarhs ahead by a point, Travis Smith buried yet another 3-pointer with 1:51 to play to put Mercer ahead to stay.
The Bears sealed the deal by making 5-of-6 free throws in the final 42 seconds. For the game, Mercer connected on 14-of-15 free throws. The Bears also torched ODU from the field in the second half with 57 percent shooting, a stat that reflected the crisp passing and unselfish nature Mercer displayed throughout. The Bears had 22 assists on 27 field goals.
“When you’re passing the ball the way we did (Wednesday), you know you’re going to get some good looks,” Hoffman said.
The Bears also matched ODU’s renowned tenacity on the boards and actually ended up winning the rebounding battle 35-32.
“Coming in here we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Cecil said. “But we also knew if we didn’t panic and stuck with it, we could pull it out.”
Hall finished with 13 points, Jakob Gollon added 11 and Daniel Coursey chipped in 10 for the Bears (25-11).