MACON, Ga.- The Belmont Bruins took a late lead and hit their free throws down the stretch, defeating the Mercer men's basketball team, 78-72, in Atlantic Sun conference action Thursday night at the University Center.
Belmont's Boomer Herndon dropped in a layup with 1:45 to go in the contest, snapping a 65-65 tie, and the Bruins hit seven-of-eight from the charity stripe inside the final minute to hold off the Bears.
Neither team could build a comfortable cushion in a first half that featured five ties and four lead changes. With Mercer (5-14, 4-9 A-Sun) trailing by just one, at 17-16, midway through the opening half, guard Justin Hare hit a 3-pointer and junior Andrew Preston hit a shot inside to give Belmont their largest lead of the half. But the Bears rallied, knotting the score at 24 apiece behind five points from senior Will Emerson.
Junior Ross Alacqua then came alive, sparking an 11-0 run as the native of Alpharetta, Ga., followed a driving layup by Jacob Skogen with two free throws and back-to-back 3- pointers from well beyond the arc to put the Bears up 35-24 with just under three minutes remaining before halftime. Belmont responded with a 7-2 run of their own to close out the half, setting the 37-31 Mercer advantage at intermission.
Belmont (11-9, 9-4 A-Sun) came out of the break strong, but the Bears withstood each challenge as the Bruins continued to chip away, eventually tying the score at 49-49 with 9:38 remaining in the contest. Four different players scored for Mercer as the Bears once again pushed their lead back to eight with over seven minutes to go.
A pivotal point in the contest came at the 3:54 mark with Mercer leading 63-58 when Bruins' senior Dan Oliver hit a trey from the top of the key and Bears' guard Montavious Waters was whistled for a foul away from the ball. After a media timeout, Justin Hare drained two free throws to tie the score at 63-63. After the teams traded layups, Herndon dropped in consecutive baskets that gave Belmont a lead it would not relinquish.
Mercer managed to cut the deficit to four twice inside the final seconds, but could not get any closer as the Bruins extended their winning streak to three games. The Bears have dropped back-to-back close games, after falling at East Tennessee State last Monday.
The Bears placed five players in double figures for the third time this season, led by Alacqua's 14 points. Emerson and senior Andrew Brown added 13 points each, while Sam Dolan chipped in 11 points. Skogen posted 10 points and Brown pulled down a team-high eight rebounds.
Belmont's Boomer Herndon led all scorers with 27 points and collected 13 rebounds. Hare added 15 points for the Bruins.
Next up for the Bears is a matchup with league-leader Lipscomb, with tip off set for 2 p.m. Saturday in the University Center.