Mercer’s five starters got a rousing standing ovation from the Hawkins Arena crowd with about 15 seconds remaining Saturday afternoon.
And they earned it.
The Bears’ starters all scored in double figures and ended up with all but 12 of the team’s points in a 90-81 win over VMI. The victory came in Mercer’s Southern Conference debut and kept the Bears undefeated at home this season at 4-0.
“All five guys can score, and we have a lot balance, and that helps us,” Phillip Leonard said. “We talk about that all the time that we just have to be ready when the ball comes to us and make the plays we need to make.”
The Bears (5-4, 1-0 Southern Conference) made all the plays in two key second-half runs to pull out the win.
First, with the game tied at 55 with 16:35 left to play, Mercer used a 16-3 spurt to claim its biggest lead of the game at 13 points (71-58). VMI, however, kept fighting behind its 3-point shooting (it made 17-of-44 for the game) and once again tied the game at 78.
Mercer responded immediately with an Ike Nwamu 3, and the Bears capped a 12-0 spurt to lead 90-78 on a thunderous Leonard dunk with 28 seconds left. Head coach Bob Hoffman then took out the starters at the next break to the delight of the Hawkins Arena crowd (the starters did return for the closing seconds).
“We had five guys in double figures, and when you can do that on the offensive end, you can have some success,” Hoffman said. “That was good to see.”
Leonard and Nwamu led the Bears with 18 points each, while Darious Moten added 17 points and seven rebounds. Jibri Bryan had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and T.J. Hallice had 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Bears executed crisply on offense, hitting 50.9 percent (29-of-57) from the floor and 7-of-12 from 3-point range, and they had 42 points in the paint.
Another key factor was Mercer’s dominance on the boards as it outrebounded VMI (4-5, 1-1) 47-29.
“We knew second shots would be a big deal, and they didn’t get as many as they have all year, and that was a big deal for us,” Hoffman said. “Rebounding was big, a huge element of our success. Another important part of it that was big was that we needed to get in the lane and get some points, and finding ways to get layups was huge against their defense. I thought those two things, rebounding and scoring in the lane, were the biggest factors in this game.”
VMI had the tempo at its pace in the first half as it hit 10 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes. Still, the Bears led 48-45 at the break. The Keydets hit just 7-of-25 from 3-point range in the second half.
“We worked on this for five days to get ready for their press,” Leonard said. “We knew they were going to go on runs. They take so many shots, and they press and keep the pressure on you. We just had to sustain and keep working. It’s big for us to get the first conference win in this first game; that’s really important for us.”
Mercer is off for finals this week and returns to action Dec. 16 at home against Dartmouth. After hosting Bethune-Cookman on Dec. 19, Mercer will be away from home until Jan. 10.