Every time Mercer made a run Thursday night at Hawkins Arena, Wofford had an answer.
In a high-quality game between two of the Southern Conference’s top three teams, the Terriers pulled out a 76-72 win. The victory clinches at least a share of the regular-season championship and the top seed in the conference tournament next week for the Terriers (24-6 overall, 15-2 Southern Conference).
Mercer falls to 16-14 and 11-6 with its third home loss of the season and has clinched the third seed for the conference tournament.
“It’s very frustrating when you know you work for four straight days preparing for this game and come up a little bit short,” Stephon Jelks said. “We wanted to win the game, even though we couldn’t win the conference championship. We just wanted to win for pride.”
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Mercer trailed 35-25 after a sluggish first half that saw the Bears shoot just 10-of-26 from the floor (38.5 percent). Mercer’s starters were just 5-of-16 from the floor for 11 points in the first half as the Terriers led by as many as 14 points.
But the Bears’ reserves kept them in the game, shooting 5-of-8 for 14 points.
“Just energy,” said Jelks, who came off the bench for seven points in the first half. “Coach wants us to come in and give energy, and that’s what we do so the starters can rest up and get back in the game. It’s all about energy.”
Mercer really got its energy going coming out of halftime, using a 14-2 run to claim its first lead at 39-37. The teams stayed close for the next nine minutes with plenty of strong plays on both ends, and the game was tied at 55 with 6:23 left.
“We guarded with tremendous intensity, and that’s what we normally do, but even with that they shot 54 percent for the game,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “We have given up way too high shooting percentages the last few weeks if we’re going to be a championship team. We have to clean that up moving into conference tournament play.”
With the game tied, the Terriers had another run in them, pulling away with a 14-4 spurt, keyed by Spencer Collins, who had nine of his 26 points during that stretch. Collins hit 7-of-11 from the floor, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range. He also hit 8-of-9 from the foul line. Lee Skinner added 15 points for the Terriers, while Kyle Cochran had 13.
“We lost him a couple of times, and he’s a good player,” Hoffman said of Collins. “He’s a tremendous player, and Cochran is a really good player. Then they made winning plays late, and we were right there close; we just weren’t able to finish.”
The Bears kept fighting and clawed their way back to a three-point game on a 3-pointer from Darious Moten with 11.8 seconds left. But Skinner hit 1-of-2 free throws for a four-point lead, and the Bears’ comeback was just too little, too late.
Moten led the Bears with 18 points, while Ike Nwamu and Jelks each had 14, and Nwamu had a career-high eight assists. Mercer shot 61.5 percent (16-of-26) from the floor in the second half and finished with 25 points from its reserves.
“The first half we just didn’t communicate, and that’s my fault,” Hoffman said. “The second half, we played better. But you just can’t dig yourself that kind of hole against a great team.”
The Bears wrap up their regular season Saturday against East Tennessee State.