Only a handful of conference games remain in the A-Sun, and three teams are legitimately in the hunt for the regular-season title and top seed for the tournament.
Two of them lock up Saturday afternoon at the University Center.
Mercer has won six straight and welcomes a pretty warm USC Upstate, winner of four in a row, at 4:30 p.m. in a showdown of contenders, with the women’s game starting at 2 p.m.
“I really believed Upstate was going to be one of the best teams in the league, after watching tape of them before we prepared for them and seeing their scores.” Mercer men’s head coach Bob Hoffman said. “It’s shown itself to be correct what I perceived to be right, which isn’t always the way it is.
“They’re so athletic, and I knew they were going to beat a lot of people at their gym. They’re dangerous from a lot of standpoints.”
The Bears are unlikely to underestimate the Spartans, who pulled off the comeback of the season in the A-Sun two weeks ago when they overcame a 16-point second-half deficit to shock Belmont in the final seconds for a 79-78 win.
“They shot the ball really well,” Hoffman said of Upstate’s huge comeback. “They turned Belmont over some. They found a way to get the energy in the building and made it happen.”
Upstate, which has seven players from Georgia, is in sole possession of third place, only two games out of first after being picked ninth in the preseason.
This is the first season all Upstate athletics programs are eligible for A-Sun tournament and NCAA postseason play.
Sophomore Torrey Craig, a 6-foot-6, 215-pounder, is in the top-15 in the A-Sun in several categories: scoring, first, 17.4 ppg; rebounding, second, 7.7; offensive rebounding, eighth, 2.4; blocks, ninth, 1.1; free-throw shooting, 12th, 71.4 percent; and steals, 15th, 1.3.
Craig’s 8-foot putback with seven-tenths of a second left was the game-winner over Belmont.
“He’s a slasher kind of guy, can hit threes, can really get it going,” Hoffman said. “Craig’s a tremendous player. Not just a good player, a tremendous player.”
Justin Cecil guarded him in the first meeting, a 73-66 win two days after the Bears staggered to a 76-61 loss at East Tennessee State. Craig scored 17 points with seven rebounds in that game while Cecil scored 26.
Ty Greene adds 10.7 points, and Mario Blessing is a 40-percent 3-point shooter. Jodd Maxey had 19 points and eight rebounds against Belmont, his sixth straight double-digit scoring game.
Cecil leads Mercer’s balanced offense with 11.9 points, good for 12th in the A-Sun. Langston Hall is fourth with 4.4 assists and assist-turnover ratio at 1.6.
The win over Upstate a few weeks ago was a benchmark for the Bears.
“The most important thing I learned about our team was their ability to be resilient through tough times, to be able to stand the test of what was thrown at us,” Hoffman said of the win at Upstate. “And for them to understand that if we wanted have a special year that we wanted to have, we were going to have to get it done that night.”
Mercer’s women are on a 13-game losing streak, but the Bears did get forward Ry’van Buchanan back during their 75-59 loss Thursday to East Tennessee State.
She missed four games with concussion-like symptoms and showed little wear and tear in limited minutes.
Mercer (3-20, 1-11) had spurts of good play against the Lady Bucs but couldn’t sustain it, and ETSU was able to ease its way to victory in the final minutes.
USC Upstate (6-16, 5-6) had a four-game winning streak broken with Thursday’s 54-45 loss at Kennesaw State. The Spartans topped Mercer 77-56 on Jan. 9.