The good news is that Mercer is playing well enough, especially on defense, to beat some pretty good teams.
The bad news is that the Bears haven’t quite done so.
For the second time in a week, Mercer was in position to win against a favored opponent, and for the second time in a week, the Bears were left figuratively kicking themselves for lost opportunities.
Charlotte took advantage of a Mercer dry spell that lasted a few seconds short of four minutes and survived a final-second shot to nip the Bears 64-63 in non-conference men’s basketball action Thursday afternoon at the University Center.
Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman has little time to pick up his own spirits, as well as that of his team, as the Bears play Friday at Georgia Tech in a game that is scheduled to tip off about 21 hours after Thursday’s final buzzer.
“I made some poor choices as a coach on some things, and that cost us,” Hoffman said. “And then we made some poor choices defensively, gambling. We were up six a couple times and we get ’em open 3s, which if we played solid, like we’d done most of the time, it could’ve been good.”
A week earlier, Mercer led Georgia for the majority of the game, hit a wall, and lost 56-53. In that game, Brian Mills couldn’t hold on to a pass inside that he likely would have scored for the game-winner in the final seconds.
He had a chance again against Charlotte, but under much tougher circumstances.
Mark Hall made his first free throw and missed the second, but Mills scored on the putback to pull Mercer within 64-63 with 17 seconds left.
Charlotte’s Javarris Barnett was quickly fouled, and Mills rebounded his miss, giving Mercer 15 seconds to win the game.
Jeff Smith dribbled into the defense and lost possession. Charlotte got the ball and threw it into the backcourt to save it, but Mercer’s Langston Hall tracked it down and called a timeout with 4.1 seconds left. The ball finally got to Mills in the corner, but he had to hurry it with one of Charlotte’s taller forwards flying at him, and it came up short.
“We just missed shots,” freshman point guard Langston Hall said. “We didn’t get set up all the way in offense, which is some of my fault, too. We’ve got to take better shots.”
Mills led Mercer with 14 points and eight rebounds, while Jeff Smith added 13 points and Brandon Moore 12.
Barnett topped Charlotte with 18. Derrio Green had 12 and Phil Jones 10.
Mercer outrebounded the taller 49ers 28-25, with a 2-to-1 advantage on offensive boards, 12-6. But Mercer went only 11-of-19 at the line, 7-of-13 in the second half.
“We missed too many free throws,’ Hoffman said. “We’ve been shooting ‘em good.”
Mercer shot a respectable 46.2 percent, but the 49ers finished at 54 percent after shooting 65 percent during the second half, making five straight shots to open the half.
“We played 36, 37 minutes of unbelievable defense (Thursday),” Hoffman said. “We’ve got to understand what the situation is and who’s on ya and how big and long and what they do.”
The Bears and 49ers were evenly matched, with 10 ties and 11 lead changes. Mercer went up 24-17 with 5:10 to go in the half after Langston Hall’s 3-pointer and baseline runner. Charlotte momentarily regained the lead only for Mercer to take it back and hold a 29-26 lead with 27.5 seconds left.
An’Juan Wilderness gave the 49ers some momentum with a buzzer-beater to pull them within 31-30 at halftime.
Charlotte took its biggest lead of the game almost five minutes into the second half, 42-37, but the Bears crept back. It remained a one-possession game until Mercer scored five straight for a 58-52 lead with 6:37 remaining.
Ironically, Mercer led Georgia by almost the same margin, 48-43, at about the same time a week earlier. Unfortunately for the Bears, things started to go a little south at the same time.
Mills’ 15-footer put the Bears ahead 60-57, and Mark Hall drew a charge on Charlotte’s next trip, but the Bears followed with a couple of subpar possessions and the 49ers made them pay by taking the lead 61-60 on Derrio Green’s layup with 2:45 left.
Mercer came up empty on three straight trips, getting only one good look but missing twice at the line along the way.
“I think the last two games, we’ve played harder than Georgia and Charlotte,” Langston Hall said. “We just came up a little bit short.”