Bob Hoffman typically gets emotional on senior day, and that likely won’t change Saturday, even though the pregame ceremony won’t take as long as last year’s.
Last year’s class included seven players who helped turn around the Mercer program, and those players went on to lead the Bears to a program-defining win over Duke in the NCAA tournament in March. With that group moving on, T.J. Hallice and Darious Moten stepped into the senior leadership role, and Hoffman likes what he has seen from those two.
Mercer (16-14, 11-6 Southern Conference) hosts East Tennessee State at 4 p.m. on Saturday in the final regular-season game for Hallice and Moten.
“They have been here the long haul and worked their tails off, and they have a done a great job leading this team,” Hoffman said. “It hasn’t been an easy thing. People want you to keep the program at a high level, and I would have loved for us to win the league, and we didn’t do that. Finishing third is not what you want to accept, but it’s a pretty good accomplishment for what we walked into the year with.”
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The Bears have clinched the third spot in their first season in the Southern Conference with the conference tournament set for next week in Asheville, North Carolina. Five of Mercer’s conference losses have been by single digits, and four have been by four points or fewer.
One of those was a 71-70 defeat at East Tennessee State last month, which was Mercer’s first Southern Conference loss.
“We still have a chance to hang some banners, and that’s what we want; that’s what we’re focusing on,” Hoffman said. “So let’s go see what we can do. We’re going to have to get ETSU first because they’re going to zone us hard, and we are going to have to hit shots. They’ve got a good team, and we know that.
“We’re right there in these games. I think a lot of teams could win (the conference tournament); there’s a lot of good teams in this conference.”
East Tennessee State is tied with Western Carolina for fourth in the conference at 8-9 and sits at 16-12 overall.
Wofford leads the conference at 15-2 and has clinched at least a share of the regular-season title and the top seed for the tournament. Chattanooga is 14-3 and can earn a share of the regular-season crown Saturday if it wins and Wofford loses to Furman. The Terriers and Mocs split their meetings, but the Terriers earned the top seed because they beat Mercer twice, while the Mocs split with the Bears.
Mercer’s two losses to Wofford came by a total seven points, while the Bears beat Chattanooga by three and lost by 13.
“We just have to go back to work and be ready for ETSU and then get ready for the conference tournament next week,” Stephon Jelks said. “(The close games with the top teams) give us a lot of confidence knowing how we played them. We always stick together, even through tough situations, because we know we’re a good team. We know we have a chance to win the conference tournament. We just have to stick together and keep that mindset.”