It was the type of road trip a coach or player would like to forget. Near the top of the Atlantic Sun conference standings going into this weekend’s road trip against Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer looked nearly unbeatable. They had defeated Jacksonville, Campbell, and East Tennessee State in January and were playing confident basketball until the Hatters and Eagles pulled upsets.
In the Friday night match-up against Stetson, the Bears trailed for the entirety of the nationally televised game, losing 76-69. Stetson’s 5-0 run to start the first half was the spark the DeLand-based team needed to get by the sluggish Bears. The Hatter’s (5-12, 3-6) win snapped Mercer’s five game winning streak.
“We had plenty of opportunities to get back in it,” commented Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman after Friday’s game. “Got to give them credit, they got after us.”
Early fouls called on guard E.J. Kusnyer plagued the Bears as Hoffman benched Kusnyer after on 39 seconds of play to start the game. The move proved costly for Mercer, as they would go on to shoot 18.5 percent from the perimeter (5-for-27) for the game. Free-throw shooting, also a strong point of Mercer’s game, was less than accurate as the Bears made 14 of their 25 free throws from the charity stripe.
Meanwhile, Stetson kept pace ahead of the Bears extending their leads to as much as 14 points with consistent offensive games from A.J. Smith (22 points), Mark Lohuis (15 points), and Ridge Graham (15 points, nine rebounds). Mercer’s James Florence would continue his long streak of double-digit scoring with 25 points on the night, as Daniel Emerson would chip in 18 points and nine rebounds.
Looking for a crucial victory to stay in the thick of the race at the top of the A-Sun, the Bears again dropped an important game in Fort Meyers, falling to the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (6-13, 3-6) with a final score of 71-70. Late game heroics from FGCU’s Anthony Banks sealed the deal for the Eagles after a gutsy three-pointer was made by Kusnyer.
Statistically speaking, the game was a deadlock. Neither team capitalized the opportunities at the free throw line, shooting 12-for-20, respectively. The Bears held an early lead for most of the first half before FGCU fought back to reclaim the advantage with 48 seconds left. For most of the first ten minutes of the second half, both teams exchanged baskets to neutralize each other’s leads, but it was the home team that really started rolling when they an 11 point lead with 12:21 left on a Kyle Marks jumper.
Late in the game, Mercer worked the Eagles’ lead down until Kusnyer’s big jumper, however FGCU had just enough time left on the clock to for an extensive offensive possession. Ultimately, the Bears fell short by only a point, but the two losses on the weekend capped a disappointing run for Mercer after such a promising month in early January.
FGCU’s Kyle Marks would finish as the team’s leading scorer with 14 points, followed by Derrick O’Neil’s 13 points and Anthony Banks’ 12 points. Daniel Emerson would notch another double-double with 19 points and 14 rebounds for Mercer. All five starters for the Bears would finish in double-digits.
After the game, Hoffman said on MercerBears.com, “We let one get away from us that we could have had. They played better than us for the majority of the game.”
Senior James Florence added, “You can’t afford to not perform when your being counted on…that’s always going to equal a loss. We’ve got to pick to up.”
A midweek tussle with Kennesaw State will be the first opportunity for the Bears to redeem themselves before they match up again with Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast in the friendly confines of the University Center on January 30 and February 1.