Bob Hoffman is still feeling out his new team and wanted to see how this group would rebound from its first loss of the season.
He had to like what he saw Wednesday night at Hawkins Arena at least until the final eight minutes.
The Bears put on an offensive and defensive show against instate rival Kennesaw State, holding on for a 74-66 victory to improve to 2-1.
The Bears hit the road this weekend to face Colorado State on Sunday before heading to the Great Alaska Shootout for three games next week.
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“I think we took a big step,” senior Darious Moten said. “We did a lot of good things offensively and defensively. We just have to finish it off a little better.”
Jibri Bryan and Moten led a balanced attack for the Bears with 15 and 14 points, respectively, while Phillip Leonard (13) and T.J. Hallice (11) also scored in double figures. Mercer was solid offensively throughout the game, shooting 30-of-54 (55.6 percent) from the floor after struggling against Seton Hall on Sunday.
The Mercer defense was just as strong, holding Kennesaw State (0-3) to 40.7 percent (24-of-59) from the floor.
“We’ve still got a lot to work on,” Bryan said. “We just need to calm down a little bit, and we’ll get there.”
But the Owls didn’t quit. Kennesaw State trailed by as many as 25 (62-37) before fighting back into the game in the closing minutes with a 3-point barrage and an impressive press. The Owls closed to within seven points a couple of times, but the Bears were able to escape.
“They’re dangerous, and they have high-level athletes who can make plays, and they got going when they started pressing us,” Hoffman said. “We worked on pressure, and teams have pressed us, but sometimes it’s different when it’s live and teams are coming at you, and we didn’t finish as well as we should.
“Really, we probably should credit (the Owls) as much as anything with how they made big shot after big shot. We were tentative closing out to them when we shouldn’t have been; we should have made them bounce it.”
Still, Hoffman was pleased that his team was able to respond to the Owls’ run at the end.
“It’s a young team, and we’ll continue to get better, and this was a great building block for us moving forward that we were able to finish,” Hoffman said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams, thankfully I haven’t coached any of them, that have collapsed in that situation, and we were able to get it done. It’s a process, and these young men are going to learn from the process and the experience we had (Wednesday).”
Of note: Hoffman matched Mark Slonaker for third all-time at Mercer with his 128th victory with the Bears. That trails only Bill Bibb (222) and Robert Wilder (147). ... Mercer improved to 49-5 at home since the start of the 2011-12 season. ... The Bears lead the all-time series with the Owls 13-6. ... Mercer’s next home game is Dec. 2 against St. Andrews.