When opportunity knocked this basketball season for Ross Cummings, the Mercer sophomore not only opened the door, he tore it off the hinges.
The 6-foot-3 guard, who played little as a freshman and not much more early this season, has been a central figure in the eight-game winning streak the Bears carry into this weekend's Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville, North Carolina. Cummings has provided a scoring spark missing for the Bears since senior Ri'an Holland went to the sidelines six weeks ago with a knee injury.
The native of Dickson, Tennessee, has nearly doubled his scoring average (4.6 to 8.4/game) while shooting 52.8 percent (29 of 55) on 3-pointers during the streak. He had a career-high 23 points to help key a 77-74 win against regular-season champion North Carolina-Greensboro in the middle of Mercer's run.
"It's a credit to him, the assistant coaches and his family upbringing on him being willing to stay ready and work, even though he wasn't getting the opportunity he hoped for when got here," Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said of Cummings.
Cummings earned some extra game minutes after the first of the year because of improved work on the scout team, Hoffman said. The player then stepped right in when Holland went out early in the Bears game against VMI on Jan. 18.
"I stayed hopeful from the beginning of the year," Cummings said. "I stayed in the gym, kept positive and worked on my game so I'd be ready for the moment when it did happen."
Ironically, Holland, who was Mercer's leading scorer last season after transferring from Indian Hills Community College, had a role in helping his replacement maintain focus while toiling on the scout team. The two were roommates on Mercer road trips before Holland was injured.
"(Ri'an) kept me up and kept me confident," Cummings said.
Two days after Holland was hurt, Cummings had his first extensive action at UNCG. Hoffman delivered a message to Cummings, the player he saw as a potential scoring threat, not long after Cummings hit the court against the Spartans.
"I put him in against Greensboro and he walked when he had a wide open shot, but tried to drive (to the basket)," the coach said. "I took him out and talked to him and put him back in about 20 seconds later and told him to shoot the ball or he was coming out.
"I'm not saying it's anything I did (that spurred Cummings). I just made sure he knew we needed him to be a scorer and that's what he's done."
Cummings heeded the advice — or warning — and responded with 11 points in the loss. He followed that with 16 points in 18 minutes against The Citadel, and was in the starting lineup for good the next game against Furman when he had 15 points in 26 minutes.
"My shot feels good," he said. "(Confidence) is really high."
Added Hoffman: "He's been on a roll."
So has Jordan Strawberry, Cummings' backcourt mate. The senior, who was named second team all-conference on Wednesday, has been a force on both ends of the floor in the Bears streak.
Strawberry has increased his scoring from 9.2 to 10.8 on 42 percent shooting from the floor while hitting 38 of 39 at the foul line. He's had 56 assists and only 13 turnovers while averaging 34.5 minutes.
His impact has been just as impressive on the other end of the floor, where he's routinely drawn the opposition's main scoring guard, and produced some memorable defensive plays.
"I need to have an all-around game," said Strawberry, who scored a career-high 27 points in the win against UNCG and the winning bucket in Sunday's 69-68 regular-season finale at Wofford. "I've had to step it up on defense."
It came at the urging of the coaching staff.
"We've kind of pushed on him to be a better defensive player," Hoffman said. "The last month he's been really good on the defensive end and we've needed it."
The Bears will need another installment of the efforts they've received from Cummings and Strawberry to earn a third win against Wofford in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. tournament opener. Mercer began its winning streak with a 73-65 win against the Terriers on Feb. 3.
Hoffman and his staff didn't make any strategic or philosophy changes to jumpstart the run. They offered only a charge to all of the players.
"All we've talked about is competing every possession," he said. "If you have a bad one, try to make the next three better. We didn't talk about winning and losing, but just working as hard as we could and see where it took us and led us to a really good place."
It's a place that likely has the rest of the league feeling wary of the Bears.
"We say we don't think anybody wants to see us in the tournament the way we're playing," Cummings said. "We're feeling really good."
5 p.m.: The Citadel (10-20) v. VMI (9-20)
7:15: Samford (10-21) v. Chattanooga (9-22)
Noon: UNCG (24-7) v. Citadel/VMI
2:30: Mercer (18-13) v. Wofford (20-11)
6 p.m.: ETSU (23-8) v. Samford/UTC
8:30: Furman (23-8) v. W. Carolina (13-18)
4 p.m.: Saturday afternoon winners
6:30: Saturday evening winners
9 p.m.: Sunday winners