Hot Start for Mercer Hoops

J. Andrew LockwoodContributor INovember 15, 2009

The Mercer men didn’t disappoint in their first road trip of the season to Rhode Island for the three game World Vision Invitational. Playing Bucknell, Bryant, and Providence, the Bears would win two of the three contests with an explosive offense and with a determined defense.

The Bears (2-1) won the season opener 89-80 against the Bucknell Bison of the Patriot League, a team that went to the second round of the NCAA tournament only a few years ago after an upset win over Arkansas. Powered by senior guard James Florence’s 33 points and some late game heroics from junior Jeff Smith, the Bears won the barn-burner contest in which both teams shot close to 50% from the field. Ultimately, Mercer would outscore the Bison by seven in the second half off of a 63% effort from the floor, but Bucknell kept it close and pulled within four points before Mercer hit crucial free throws to close out the contest.

Although Florence posted the big numbers on the night (his 80th game in double-figures as a Bear), Mercer saw solid contributions from Jeff Smith (16 points, 3-4 3PT), Daniel Emerson (13 points, 13 rebounds), and Brian Mills (11 points, 7 rebounds) as well. Bucknell’s offense was led by a trio of guards that would shoot 11-16 from beyond the perimeter for the night. Darryl Shazier, Bryan Cohen, and Bryson Johnson made up a large part of the Bison offense, accounting for 52 of the team’s 80 points.

Following the first win of the year, head coach Bob Hoffman said, “We have a good nucleus and the pieces fit together tonight but we have to guard better on the defensive end.” Commenting on the NBA-like final score, Hoffman added, “Anytime these guys are scoring, it makes me look good. Danny [Emerson] is a double-double waiting to happen. He could have had 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] easy tonight.”

After the opening night win, the Bears would demolish the Bryant Bulldogs 80-56 in their second contest, a game in which the final score was much closer than the actual matchup. With momentum on their side following the defeat of Bucknell, E.J. Kusnyer got hot from the perimeter, hitting six three-pointers on his way to a 22 point afternoon against the Bulldogs. At one point, Mercer would lead by as much as 31 in the first half (45-14).

The final tally saw Emerson notch 16 points followed by Florence’s 14 points in only 24 minutes. Using the mammoth leads throughout the game, Hoffman was able to use a good part of his bench, substituting in eight bench players to get quality floor minutes for the Bears.

While the Bears rocked the Dunkin’ Donuts Arena in Providence with big wins against Bucknell and Bryant, the game everyone really wanted to see pitted the hometown Providence Friars of the Big East Conference against the upset-happy Bears.

Midway through the first half, the game had the making of a blow out as the Friars broke away from Mercer to earn a 15 point lead at the intermission. However, Hoffman changed up the team’s game plan at the break, shifting the Bears into a zone defense that would allow only three points for more than 6 minutes late in the second half. The tight defense would allow Mercer to crawl their way back into the contest, cutting the lead to only a point with 1:10 remaining in the game. Despite several scoring opportunities in the final 70 seconds, nothing would fall in for the Bears as they would drop their first game of the season 79-77.

“I thought our guys played hard enough and gave themselves a chance to win,” said Hoffman. “I know I’ve got some warriors and they’re going to go at it each night,” added the second year head coach.

James Florence would finish the game with 23 points while swingman Jeff Smith would chip in 19 more. Emerson would pull down 16 rebounds and add in 12 more points in the final tally, but it was Providence’s Marshon Brook’s day as the Marietta, Georgia native would pace the Friars with 26 points off of a 10-18 effort from the field.

Returning home to face Fisk University and Florida State for homecoming, the Bears will continue to face big conference opponents for the next two months with important contests against Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and Alabama coming on the road soon.

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