Playing for a chance to avoid a first-round game in the Southern Conference Tournament, Mercer looked like a team ready for the postseason Monday.
The Bears led by two points at the half and then dominated play in the second half for an 88-79 win over Samford and a season sweep of the Bulldogs. Mercer finishes 15-16 overall and 9-9 in the conference to end up sixth entering the conference tournament. The Bears will open play Saturday in the final game of the second round.
Samford finishes 17-14 and 8-10 and will have the seventh seed in the tournament. The Bulldogs will play a first-round game Friday.
Three who mattered
Jordan Strawberry: The Bears’ junior point guard led the way with a career-high 32 points. He had 18 in the first half and was strong throughout, hitting 7-of-15 from the floor, including four 3-pointers. Strawberry was 14-of-14 from the free-throw line and added seven assists and seven rebounds.
Stephon Jelks: The junior forward had 13 of his 17 points in the second half and added seven rebounds.
Demetre Rivers: The junior forward had 12 of his 16 points in the second half and hit two 3-pointers.
Free, indeed: Mercer was 25-of-29 from the free-throw line and made all 21 of its attempts in the second half.
Controlling the glass: Mercer had a 41-24 rebounding edge, which led to a 15-6 advantage in second-chance points.
Taking care of the ball: Mercer had 20 assists on its 27 field goals and only five turnovers. The Bears had a 16-2 advantage in points off turnovers.
Honoring the seniors: Seniors Andrew Fishler, JJ N’Ganga and James Bento were honored before the game.
They said it
Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman on Strawberry’s play: “I still think he’s got more of them in him. It was a great, great night, but I don’t want to classify it as historical or anything crazy because he’s had some big nights, and he’s capable. Those seven rebounds were huge, seven assists. But he made some shots to make a difference in (Monday’s) game, and he was willing to step into the moment as he always is, and he delivered.”
Strawberry on his confident performance: “Just being in the gym, and I saw a couple of shots go in in the first half, and I got to the free-throw line a lot, so that really helps me get my rhythm going. Once the ball started going in the basket, it felt really good.”
Hoffman on the play of Jelks and Rivers: “We need both those guys playing. Demetre went in and got some big-time rebounds, so did Steph. But they hit some shots (Monday). Steph’s 3 late. Demetre hit a big 3. He had missed a couple, and I said, ‘Just step into them. Believe it, man. You’ve gotta shoot them. Be ready.’ I was yelling at him because I knew he was getting ready, and he stuck that one from, we call it the fan, but just off the top of the key over there near our bench. And that was a big one, got him going. And he drove a couple, hit a couple of floaters, which he can do.”
Mercer opens Southern Conference Tournament play against East Tennessee State at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina.
2017 Southern Conference Tournament
Game 1 — Western Carolina vs. The Citadel, 5 p.m.
Game 2 — Samford vs. VMI, 7:30 p.m.
UNC Greensboro vs. Game 1 winner, Noon
Chattanooga vs. Wofford, 2:30 p.m.
Furman vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
East Tennessee State vs. Mercer, 8:30 p.m.
Semifinal 1, 5 p.m.
Semifinal 2, 7:30 p.m.
Championship Game, 7:00 p.m.