The Mercer basketball team is out of the running for a regular-season Southern Conference championship.
But that doesn’t mean the Bears’ final two games are meaningless.
In fact, those home games -- Thursday against Wofford and Saturday against East Tennessee State -- are key for the Bears as they get ready for their first trip to the Southern Conference tournament. Wofford leads the conference standings at 14-2 and is 23-6 overall, while Mercer is third at 11-5 and 16-13 overall.
“They’re big for us. There’s a lot of momentum going into these games,” junior point guard Phillip Leonard said. “We might see these teams again. We want to play well and get a good look at them and be ready for next week.”
Finishing strong is important for the Bears, but just playing to their recent standard is, as well. After all, Mercer has had a solid first season in the conference as it made the transition from the A-Sun.
For the fourth straight year, Mercer entered the final week of the regular season with a shot at winning a regular-season conference title. And for the seventh straight year -- every year in head coach Bob Hoffman’s tenure -- Mercer has won at least 15 games and finished with at least a .500 conference record.
“That’s good stuff,” Hoffman said. “They’ve done a good job. Whenever you are under scrutiny like we are now, which is a great thing, so to speak, some people don’t understand all the nuances of what it takes to stay at that level. To credit these guys, they have stayed with it and continued to believe in each other.”
That belief has grown with this year’s team, which featured new faces and returning players taking on larger roles. Hoffman likes the chemistry this group has forged.
“They have been really good with those things, and we have spent a lot of time working on it and talking about it,” Hoffman said. “That has been part of who we are for seven years, and that was passed on, and it’s expected. These guys have really embraced that.”
Now, the Bears would like to embrace two more regular-season wins.
East Tennessee State won the first meeting 71-70 in early January, handing Mercer its first Southern Conference loss. Wofford beat Mercer 49-46 on the final day of January as the Bears went scoreless the final 6:49.
“We were right there and had all kinds of opportunities to finish,” Hoffman said of the loss to the Terriers. “Our guys did a great job of getting in that position, but we just didn’t get it done that night.”