Fired-up Mercer rolls to win at home

Sometimes, a game can be won before it starts. That might have been the case Friday, when Mercer played its first home game in more than a month.

“If you were in the hallway, you’d have known,” said guard James Florence, pointing to where Mercer makes its entrance to the court. “Everybody was pushing and screaming and shouting. We were more excited for this game than any game this year. It was crazy.”

And the mosh-pit enthusiasm, started when guard Mark Hall bumped into a teammate and got the scrum going, was converted to execution as Mercer rolled to an 88-63 win over Florida Gulf Coast in front of more than 2,000 fans at the University Center.

“The guys played with unbelievable passion,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “We’d been hoping for it, we’ve talked about it.”

This home game was the complete opposite of the last time Mercer played at the University Center, an 81-61 thumping by East Tennessee State on Dec. 5.

Seven games and five losses later, Mercer had easily one of its top performances of the season.

“I think the defense led to the offense, which we’ve been harping on,” Hoffman said. “I think they knew that (Florida Gulf Coast) beat East Tennessee and East Tennessee ran us out of our gym. You better be ready.”

It was Mercer’s second-largest win of the season and second-highest point total, both by a point. The loss was Florida Gulf Coast’s third-worst of the season, behind losses to Kansas (85-45) and Florida (94-60).

Mercer (9-8, 3-3 A-Sun) hosts Stetson at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Hatters beat Kennesaw State 69-52 on Friday to improve to 8-8 and 5-3.

Mercer gave a nice show to Sam Mitchell, the Bears’ all-time leading scorer and most celebrated alumni athlete, who was honored at halftime.

He watched his alma mater take a 10-point lead before five minutes had elapsed and keep the Eagles in a double-digit hole for 15 of the ensuing 16 minutes in the first half. The Bears took their first 20-point lead of the second half on Kusnyer’s 3-pointer with 11:15 left and continued cruising.

Other than a few lapses on defense that allowed for about a half-dozen easy Florida Gulf Coast buckets, Mercer turned in a much-needed solid outing on both sides of the court.

Calvin Henry was one block short of a triple-double with 17 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocked shots. Daniel Emerson racked up another double-double with 14 points and 15 rebounds.

E.J. Kusnyer led the Bears with 21 points, 18 coming on 3-pointers. Florence had 18 points, seven assists and four steals.

Reed Baker topped the Eagles with 21 points, with only seven coming in the second half. Kyle Marks, who also had several blocks, added 16 points.

Mercer had 17 assists and 12 turnovers, its third-best assist game of the season and only the fourth time the Bears have had more assists than turnovers.

“This was probably our best game moving the ball,” Henry said. “Everybody was talking and communicating, like coach has taught us to do. We shared the ball a lot.”

That type of play appeared at the end of the first half, with Emerson and Henry getting stuffs off of passes from Henry and Florence. Florence hit a runner, and Emerson then drove the baseline and kicked out to Kusnyer, whose 3-pointer with a couple of seconds left gave the Bears an 18-point margin, those points coming in the final 1:50.

It was Mercer’s biggest halftime lead of the season, and the 47 points was a season high for the first half and second best overall by four points.

“We’ve been waiting to get back home,” Henry said. “We wanted to come out and protect our home court and make a statement to the rest of the league that we’re going to be tough at home.”