Free throws were an issue for the Mercer Bears for the second straight home game Saturday against UNC Greensboro.
But with three seconds left and a chance to ice an important Southern Conference win, senior Darious Moten did what a senior is supposed to do -- knock down two key free throws. Moten’s pair of foul shots gave the Bears a 55-50 win over the Spartans, who never went away even when the Bears seemingly had control of the contest.
Mercer improves to 15-12 overall and 10-4 in Southern Conference play, while UNC Greensboro drops to 8-19 and 4-10.
“It’s something we do every day. We have a drill where it puts you in adverse situations, and you have to shoot free throws,” Moten said. “If you miss, you have to run suicides, so I have kind of been in that situation before. It felt kind of natural.”
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The Bears controlled the action for most of the game and had a 49-35 lead with 8:54 remaining after leading by 15 a couple of times. But the Spartans kept fighting and slowly chipped away at Mercer’s lead.
RJ White’s basket and foul shot pulled the Spartans to within 53-50 with 1:55 to play, the closest UNC Greensboro had been since late in the first half. On the Bears’ next trip, they missed three shots, but they got two offensive rebounds, and by the time the Spartans got the ball back, only 20 seconds remained.
UNC Greensboro’s chance to tie -- a Nicholas Paulos 3-point try with seven seconds remaining -- glanced off the backboard and went out of bounds after a terrific defensive effort by Jibri Bryan. The Bears inbounded to ball to Moten, and he was fouled, setting up his game-clinching free throws.
After making only 15-of-26 free throws in a loss to Western Carolina on Thursday, the Bears were 10-of-20 on Saturday.
“The most important stat I’m looking at is in the ‘W’ column, and we found a way to get it done,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “I was happy for (Darious), and I was happy for us. Jibri played great defense, and we were able to get the ball and get the win.
“We were hoping to get some separation and finish it off earlier, but it’s conference play, and it’s going to be hard. It’s a good win.”
Moten led the Bears with 13 points, while Bryan added 11, and Phillip Leonard had 10. Mercer shot 21-of-47 from the floor (44.7), and its defense was strong throughout, holding the Spartans to 37.7 percent from the floor (20-of-53) and 6-of-17 on 3-pointers.
“I thought we were better,” Hoffman said of the Bears’ defense. “They had a run in the middle of the second half where they scored eight or nine in a row, but other than that, our defense was really good.”
The Bears have only four remaining games in the regular season: at Chattanooga on Thursday and at Samford on Saturday before returning home to host Wofford and East Tennessee State the final week of the month.
“It was good to do to finish off this win,” Moten said. “We didn’t finish the game on Thursday, the way we wanted to, and we almost didn’t finish this one. So it was good to do that at the end and get this win.”