Bears come up just short of tournament upset

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — James Florence knew better.

A veteran of battles with Belmont, Florence had no time to think about his runner off the glass that gave Mercer a one-point lead with 9.8 seconds left.

“Nothing had a chance to go through my mind,” Florence said. “”What went through my mind was get back on defense.”

But there’s something about Belmont playing in Nashville.

Andy Wicke’s off-balance jumper was deflected by Mark Hall, but the ball floated into the hands of a 6-foot-9 freshman from Centerville, Ala., and Mick Hedgepeth scored with two-tenths of a second left as Belmont broke Mercer’s heart with a 65-64 win Thursday in the first round of the A-Sun tournament at Lipscomb.

“Not many teams could come back three different times as they did,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “Down 14 and make runs and finally get ahead. I would’ve liked for them to have felt the thrill of winning that game.”

It certainly looked like Mercer would be the team to return this tournament to the A-Sun’s event rather than the Belmont Invitational. After all, Belmont had won nine straight in the tournament.

The Bears spent the afternoon coming back from double-digit deficits and tied the game at 60 on Florence’s high-arcing shot in the lane with 5:29 left.

Both teams struggled for a few minutes, Belmont missing two free throws on one trip and Mercer turning the ball over on three straight possessions before Daniel Emerson’s dunk three minutes later gave Mercer its first lead.

Alex Renfroe, a 65.8-percent shooter, made 1-of-2 at the foul line, and Shane Dansby rebounded the miss, but Belmont couldn’t convert. Then Renfroe’s score off a spin move put Belmont ahead 63-62 win 26 seconds left.

The Bears worked the clock down, and Florence penetrated, pulled up and banked in the runner in traffic.

“It looked,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said, “like it wasn’t going to be our day.”

Then two head coaches had a decision to make: to call time or not to call time.

“Alex wasn’t in the game,” said Byrd, opting to stick with a better defensive lineup and keep the conference player of the year on the bench. “That’s why I really messed up. I would really be second- and third- and fourth-guessing my decision not to call a timeout when I saw that Andy didn’t have anything.”

Hoffman had something to think about, as well.

“Probably the only thing we might have done something different was call timeout after Flo hit that great shot and send in another big man,” Hoffman said. “As it turned out, Wicke had the ball instead of Renfroe, so I don’t know.”

Wicke raced downcourt and put up a tough shot that Hall got a piece of. Emerson was guarding forward Jon House at the top of the key.

“I was expecting to play it off the rim,” Emerson said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be blocked. I made sure (House) wasn’t crashing. I went in there to play it off the rim.”

But the shot was short — Wicke and Byrd joked later about whether it was a pass or a shot — and found of Hedgepeth, who scored his only points of the second half with a flicker of time left.

“Just score it as fast as I can before the clock runs out,” Hedgepeth said. “That’s about it.”

It was a crushing end for Mercer, which prevented Belmont from pulling away. Mercer trailed by 14 in the first half and by 11 a few times in the second half, but Belmont couldn’t extend the lead.

The Bears turned an 11-point deficit with 10:47 remaining into a tie in 5:21. The teams then went scoreless until Emerson’s dunk off two good passes with 2:31 left.

“It’s a miraculous win for us, really,” Byrd said. “I told a lot of those Mercer players I thought they deserved to win the game. I made a bad decision to not call timeout on that last possession, and it turned out to be a winner.

“I can’t explain it.”