As usual, Georgia College & State made life miserable for Mercer.
Ty Rowland almost made it a night to remember for the Bobcats.
The guard’s 35-footer at the buzzer just missed, and Mercer held on to nip GCSU 69-66 on Thursday night in the Coaches vs. Cancer exhibition at the University Center.
Transfer Jeff Smith led Mercer with 22 points and 10 rebounds while James Florence rebounded from a brutal first half to finish with 17 points. GCSU held forward Danny Emerson to only eight points, but he grabbed 11 rebounds.
“I think the addition of (Smith) is a pretty good one,” GCSU head coach Terry Sellers said. “He’ll give Florence a lot of help in the backcourt.”
Florence was grateful for the aid Thursday.
“I’ll help him out more next time,” Florence said. “He was huge.”
Smith was just doing what he needed to on the stage he has been waiting to perform on.
“This was my dream come true,” the transfer from Wallace State (Ala.) Community College said. “It’s been my dream to play Division I basketball. I got a taste of it.”
Graham Martin topped the typically scrappy Bobcats with 15 points, while Jake Rios added 11 and Ryan Aquino 10, despite battling a sprained ankle that has kept him out of practice most of the past two weeks.
Mercer led 68-63 in the final minute when Smith grabbed a defensive rebound. Aquino stole the ball and got it to Martin, who buried a 3-pointer to cut Mercer’s lead to 68-66 with 13 seconds left.
E.J.Kusnyer was fouled with 11.2 seconds left and made 1-of-2 foul shots. Florence stayed with Rowland, who nonetheless got a pretty clear look from far away and was just left of tying it.
“Sure, I wish it would have gone in,” Sellers said. “But I was happy. I learned a lot about our team, and our guys are smart enough to know what we have to work on.”
GCSU opens the season Nov. 18 at home against Newberry, while Mercer opens a week from today against Bucknell in the Providence World Vision Invitational.
Mercer shot 35.1 percent from the floor to 37.3 for GCSU, which made it tough despite being outrebounded by 15, mostly in the second half as Mercer overcame a nine-point margin at intermission.
“I promised myself I wasn’t going to look at the rebound margin,” Sellers said. “Don’t tell me. They made their mind up, ‘We’re fixing to whip these guys.’ Our effort was good, but they just pushed us, hit the offensive boards and did a great job in the second half.
“We’re going to play some big, strong teams. We’ve gotta rebound much better, play tougher on the boards.”
Florence was all but befuddled after the game at his team’s performance for most of the game.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “That was just rough. That’s why we play the exhibition.”
Florence said a few days before the game that the Bears wouldn’t lack energy, but the Bobcats grabbed control early and led 14-6 after six points from Reece Wiedeman and five from Rios.
Smith scored on a dipsy-do layup and off a spin move, and then Florence made his first shot on a spin in the lane, and suddenly it was tied at 14 with 9:32 left in the half.
GCSU kept Mercer at bay with a solid stretch at the line, making 7-of-8 for a 24-19 lead. The Bobcats defended the Bears well on one end and patiently got good shots or to the line on the other side and finished the half on a 9-2 run in the final 4:49 for a 35-26 lead at the break.
Florence had two points, five turnovers and no assists while Emerson had no points. Smith had 14 of Mercer’s points.
“I tried not to force anything,” Smith said. “I just wanted to let the game come to me.”
GCSU went up by 10 after Martin scored twice in the first minute of the half, courtesy of some slow Mercer defense. The Bobcats kept the Bears’ rallies to a minimum and were up 46-37 with 16 minutes left.
Then Mercer started breaking through, tying it at 46 with 13:37 left on Brandon Moore’s up-and-under move. Finally, after 27 minutes and 15 seconds, Mercer took the lead. Florence had three free throws, made two, Brian Mills got the rebound, Kusnyer drained a three off of Florence’s pass, and the Bears led 51-48 at the 12:45 mark.
The lead grew to seven, but the Bobcats naturally weren’t done. Martin’s bucket after three offensive rebounds pulled GCSU within 64-60 with 4:54 remaining and Aquino’s 3-pointer made it a two-point game with 3:44 left.
Emerson’s putback gave Mercer a 67-63 lead with 1:33 left and the Bobcats gave it back on an air ball.
The Bears then survived the final 93 seconds.
“In years past, if I would have played like that, we’d have been down 20,” Florence said. “We’ve got everybody just stepping up. That’s a good sign, when your so-called best players have 14 turnovers and you can still win.”