Even after graduating seven seniors, Mercer didn’t miss a beat.
For the seventh straight year under head coach Bob Hoffman, the Bears won their home opener, beating Piedmont College 88-48 on Friday in a game that was rarely a struggle.
Leading the way for Mercer was one of its most seasoned players as Ike Nwamu scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Phillip Leonard, stepping into Langston Hall’s spot at point guard, scored 10, adding five rebounds and seven assists.
“I expected to come in, run the team,” Leonard said. “Make sure we didn’t get any turnovers, make sure I didn’t have any turnovers. Get guys open shots and make sure we executed and everybody knew where they were at.”
The Bears were shaky to start, as the nerves were present for a fairly new group playing for the first time in front of a big crowd. But after T.J. Hallice broke a tie to put Mercer on top 14-12 with 11:22 to play in the first, the Bears never looked back as they closed out the half with a 28-9 scoring advantage.
“We stayed together the whole night,” Leonard said. “That’s something we talk about every day, staying together, picking everybody up. If somebody misses a shot, you tell them the next one’s in. We’re on the bench encouraging your teammates all the time throughout the game.”
Piedmont, a Division III team with no seniors on the squad, scuffled after the early tie, shooting just 29.4 percent in the game. Sophomore Peyton Luken led the Lions as he scored 16 and pulled down three rebounds.
Overall, the Bears shot 46.2 percent and were 6-for-17 on 3-pointers. Forcing the Lions to make 18 turnovers didn’t hurt, either.
“We had seven turnovers and 17 assists,” Hoffman said. “Those are stats that are huge, and (Leonard) led the way with seven assists and no turnovers. We’re gonna win a lot of games if he can take care of the ball like he did.”
Leonard and freshman Jordan Strawberry switched out at point guard throughout the night, and Strawberry seemed to fill in the roll well, too, totaling 11 points with one assist.
“We’re a different team (than last year), a little more athletic,” Leonard said. “We get out and run a little more. Coach gives us the freedom that if we have it we go and run instead of just calling the play every time. We have to be smart.”
Next the Bears play Sunday at Seton Hall, a team they beat in double-overtime at home last season. It’ll be a big test for a young squad.
“I’ll watch some tape (Friday), eat some pizza, enjoy the moment, then go after (Seton Hall) as hard as we possibly can,” Hoffman said.