Mercer needed a win, any win, to get back on track in Southern Conference play.
And the Bears got that win Thursday night at Hawkins Arena, stopping a two-game losing streak with a 73-58 victory over VMI.
The Bears overcame their own slow start and a 3-point onslaught from the Keydets to remain undefeated this season (9-0) at home.
Mercer improves to 15-6 overall and 5-3 in conference play, while VMI drops to 6-13 and 1-7.
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Mercer senior Jestin Lewis had a strong game, leading the team with 22 points as the Bears had three players score in double figures.
THREE WHO MATTERED
Lewis: The senior guard, who has taken over as Mercer's leading scorer, made 7-of-11 shots from the floor and all six of his free throws.
Stephon Jelks: The sophomore forward had a key steal and dunk in the second half to spark the Bears and finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Phillip Leonard: The senior point guard had another clean game with just one turnover, and he finished with 10 points, six assists and seven rebounds.
The Keydets were on fire early, especially from 3-point range, and built a 19-8 lead with 13:36 left in the first half. Mercer methodically chipped away at the Keydets' lead and took a 36-34 lead into the half, despite VMI leading for 16:21 of the half. The Bears controlled the second half.
Halftime speech worked: After VMI tied the game at 36 early in the second half, Bob Hoffman's team took over with a 10-0 run and maintained a comfortable lead throughout the rest of the second half until the closing minutes.
Put it away: Mercer had a chance to put away VMI earlier but missed nine straight free throws late in the second half: five by Leonard, three by Jelks and one by Jibri Bryan. That allowed the Keydets to cut the Bears' lead to single digits late, but VMI continued to struggle offensively, and Mercer finally pulled away.
Little inside presence: The Keydets hit only seven shots from inside the 3-point line (and they only took 18).
Defense leads to offense: Mercer forced 15 turnovers and turned those into 20 points. The Bears had only 10 turnovers, which led to nine VMI points.
Controlling the paint: The Bears outscored the Keydets 32-12 in the paint.
Cooling off after halftime: The Keydets hit six of their first nine 3-pointers and finished the first half hitting 10-of-18. They made only 4-of-19 in the second half.
Back on the court: Bryan, a senior, has been battling a knee injury all season and had played only three games before Thursday. He had not played since the Bears' game with Auburn on Dec. 15. Bryan came off the bench and played 11 minutes and scored five points, hitting 5-of-6 from the free-throw line.
THEY SAID IT
Hoffman on the win: “We found ways to get layups because they’re such a good shooting team. They were smashing it earlier. Coach has done a fantastic job with that team and putting them in positions to be successful. The second half we did a much better job guarding, but it took a team effort to get it done.”
Hoffman on his team’s play after the slow start: “We were more alert probably the end of the first half and the second half where those guys were, and they didn’t get as many open looks.”
Leonard on defending VMI: “We knew they were going to shoot 3s, but it’s different when you get out there in the first game. At the end of the first half and carrying over into the second half, we were running them off the line and not giving them open looks.”
Lewis on the Bears shooting 52.1 percent from the floor: “It was Coach Hoffman’s play calls and trying to get into the flow of the game. The second half, we were moving the ball around and getting open shots. The other day in practice, we were moving the ball and swinging the ball, and it felt like 10 guys touched it, and Steph hit a 3, and I was like, ‘Man, we look like the Spurs. We need to play like that in the game.' ”
The Bears host UNC Greensboro on Saturday.