Sports

Mercer breaks losing streak against Belmont

James Florence was a sophomore in high school, and Daniel Emerson was a junior at Camden County.

Head coach Bob Hoffman was a few games into his final season as the head coach at Texas-Pan American.

That’s where they all were on Dec. 6, 2003, when Mercer beat Belmont by two points.

Mercer went into Sunday having played 164 games since then and having lost to Belmont 10 straight times.

The streak is over.

Florence scored 30 points and Emerson rebounded from a difficult game Friday night to record another double-double as Mercer held on for an 89-83 win Sunday over Belmont in the Bears’ final home game of the season.

Only two days after Lipscomb humbled Mercer 88-67 in front of the second-largest crowd of the season and third-largest in University Center history, the Bears knocked off the A-Sun leader and broke their longest losing streak against a current opponent.

“It feels so good,” Florence said. “We beat a really good team.”

Senior Calvin Henry didn’t score but had two assists and two rebounds in 13 minutes in his Mercer home finale. Henry is still recovering from a torn medial collateral ligament suffered in the first meeting with Belmont.

“The guys were determined to play good,” Hoffman said, “and they wanted Calvin to go out on a winning note.”

Mercer improved to 17-12 overall and 11-7 in the conference. Belmont fell to 17-10 and 13-5 and into second place by a half-game behind Jacksonville and a half-game ahead of East Tennessee State.

The Bears are in fourth place, a half-game behind ETSU, which hosts Mercer on Saturday in the regular-season finale. The A-Sun tournament starts March 4 at Lipscomb with the No. 2 seed playing the No. 7 seed.

Mercer won’t worry about that just yet. It had some celebrating to do with a win over the A-Sun’s standard bearer and highly regarded head coach Rick Byrd.

“I know what kind of coach we’re playing against and what kind of staff and players and what they’ve accomplished,” Hoffman said. “We were resilient the whole night. It was an amazing win for our team.”

On Friday, Florence and Michael Ellis were the only Bears to hit more than one field goal. Mark Hall was 1-for-14, Emerson 1-for-7 and E.J. Kusnyer 1-for-4.

A substantially better outing was needed to even stay close to Belmont, and the Bears got balance with four players in double figures. Emerson had 16 points and 10 rebounds, Kusnyer had 14 on 4-of-10 3-point shooting, and Brian Mills added 11 points and three steals.

“We had a nice talk,” Hoffman said of a sit-down with Emerson. “He was upset, he was frustrated. He obviously came back with flying colors.”

Florence is 22-of-37 shooting in his past two games, 6-of-14 on 3-pointers for 64 of Mercer’s 155 points.

Alex Renfroe topped Belmont with 23, while Shane Dansby had 20 and Andy Wicke 17. Dansby and Wicke teamed for a 10-for-19 3-point day, while Florence and Kusnyer were 8-of-19.

Mercer led from the 7:14 mark of the first half to the 8:13 mark of the second, working to keep Belmont — which was seconds away from beating Duke in last year’s NCAA tournament — from taking the lead.

The Bruins finally did that on a three-point play by Renfroe with 4:40 left and upped the lead to 75-71 94 seconds later.

“We just had to settle down,” said Florence, reminded of Mercer’s comeback in an 86-82 overtime loss at Belmont last month. “We knew we could play with these guys.”

Rather than watch their confidence and execution erode, the Bears answered. Kusnyer hit a 3-pointer and Hall a free throw in 41 seconds to tie it. Mills’ two free throws put Mercer up, then he blocked a shot to set up Florence’s score on a hop-step runner for a 79-75 lead with 1:32 left.

Belmont, which has been an elite 3-point shooting team since entering the conference, got a bomb from Wicke to get within 83-79 with 22.5 seconds left. But Mercer finished things off at the line with two each from Florence, Emerson and Hall.

“That was a big deal,” Hoffman said. “They got a lead and we responded the correct way. We responded the way winners do.”

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