Full-throttle Florence: Wounded junior hits game-winner to lead Mercer

Mercer guard James Florence could only sit and listen to the crowd through the brick walls to figure out what was going on as team medical personnel broke out the needle and thread to sew Florence’s thumb back together.

Florence missed 10 minutes, 12 seconds of a huge game at home, and it was easy to assume that he might try to do too much and perhaps play out of control upon his return.

“I wasn’t calm,” the junior guard said with a smile he couldn’t get rid of. “I was full throttle.”

That was true especially at the end, when Florence had a shot blocked, chased down the loose ball, dribbled his way through traffic and banked in a runner with 1.3 seconds left to give Mercer a 72-71 win Saturday afternoon over Jacksonville before nearly 2,000 fans at the University Center.

“After he blocked it, I had to go back and get it,” Florence said, adding that teammate Michael Ellis tipped the ball toward him. “I wasn’t sure how much time was on the clock. I was going to drop it to Danny (Emerson), but I didn’t know where the clock was.

“Fortunately it went in.”

Florence scored 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting in 29 minutes, while Emerson racked up yet another double-double — his 10th of the season — with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes.

“Danny,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said, “was a man-child out there.”

E.J Kusnyer added 11 points for Mercer.

Former Dublin standout Ben Smith led Jacksonville with 24 points while Crawford County alum Lehmon Colbert added 17 before fouling out.

Mercer improved to 13-11 overall and 7-6 in the A-Sun while Jacksonville fell into second place with Belmont at 10-3 in the conference and is 12-10 overall.

The Bears’ win combined with USC Upstate’s upset of Stetson lifted Mercer into sole possession of fourth, behind East Tennessee State, Belmont and Jacksonville, a half-game ahead of Stetson.

All of that was secondary to simply beating Jacksonville, which has been around the top of the conference all season, for the first time since Feb 17, 2006.

“We had guys step up and make plays,” Hoffman said. “And we had guys that made a lot of plays all the way through.”

Not letting Smith beat the Bears was equally noteworthy. Junior Brendan Walker, of Jacksonville, turned in a big defensive effort in the second half and especially late in the game on Smith, who is known to break the hearts of opponents with clutch play.

“Brendan, he’s our best on-ball defender,” Florence said. “We put him on Ben Smith, and he really got into him, forced some turnovers, and that led to the comeback.”

Added Hoffman, “Brendan played the best defense of the day. We put him on Ben Smith at the end. Everybody knows he’s our best defender.”

Mercer trailed 43-40 when Florence got an outlet pass and started down the right sideline. Aric Brooks stepped in, and the two collided, Florence also bouncing off the media table.

He stayed on the floor, holding his right thigh and then saw that the thumb on his left hand was sliced open.

“I never saw so much blood,” said Florence, who had 14 stitches. “It was a big cut.”

He left the floor for the trainer’s room with 14:05 left. Mercer cut its deficit to 50-48 four minutes later, but Jacksonville opened up a 10-point lead for a few seconds, and the Bears trailed 66-57 when Florence returned at the 3:53 mark.

Mercer combined renewed offensive precision with a defense that forced Jacksonville into uncharacteristic mistakes. After Emerson scored low, Mercer turned three straight Jacksonville turnovers into points, including a 3-pointer by Kusnyer to give Mercer a 70-69 lead with 49.1 seconds left.

Emerson and Walker trapped Smith and forced Jacksonville’s final timeout with 29.7 seconds left.

“We decided to keep it out of his hands,” Florence said of Smith. “He’s known for hitting big shots.”

As the shot clock wound down, Ayron Hardy drained a jumper from the right corner that was initially ruled a 3-pointer but was then ruled good for two, and Jacksonville led 71-70 with 16.7 seconds left.

“When they called it a 2 instead of a 3, I knew we had a really, really good chance,” Emerson said. “One play, I’ll take us, Flo going to the basket.”

Florence went to the right side, started to drive and pulled up only to have Hardy to block the shot. Florence emerged from the pile with the ball and weaved through traffic, went up and lofted a soft shot that bounced off glass and through the net, and Mercer’s defense prevented the Dolphins from getting off a final shot.

Florence and his bandaged thumb felt little pain after returning getting the best of Smith, who hit a 17-footer at the buzzer with two Bears in his face to give Jacksonville a 72-70 win 11 months ago at the University Center.

“At home last year, Smith hit that crazy fadeaway,” Emerson said. “They gave it to us last year the way we just gave it to them. We owed them.”

Mercer 72

Jacksonville 71

Next: vs. North Florida, 7 p.m., Monday