MACON, Ga.- The Mercer men's basketball team rallied from an 11-point deficit but fell just short as Stetson held on for a 73-72 victory in Atlantic Sun Conference action Friday night at the University Center.
The Bears had an opportunity to pull out their second straight last-second win when Stetson's Kris Thomas missed two free throws with 6.7 seconds remaining and Mercer's Andrew Brown grabbed the rebound and raced toward the Bears' offensive end of the court. But Brown slipped, losing control of the basketball as he neared midcourt and time expired as players from both teams scrambled for the loose ball.
The Hatters' E.J. Gordon hit a layup with 1:16 remaining giving Stetson (7-17, 6-9 A-Sun) a 73-69 lead, but Brown answered with his second 3-pointer of the night, pulling the Bears to within one with just 49 seconds left in the contest.
In a first half that featured four ties and 10 lead changes, the Hatters used a 5-0 run to pull away from a 13-13 tie but Mercer (6-15, 5-10 A-Sun) answered with a Ross Alacqua 3-pointer and a jumper by Brown to knot the score yet again midway through the opening half. Freshman Eric Diaz then scored four straight points, followed by Thomas' old-fashioned three-point play, giving Stetson a seven-point cushion with more than eight minutes remaining. The Hatters went on to open a 10-point lead on three more occasions and led by 11 points at intermission as guard Anthony Register hit a trey at the buzzer.
The Bears shot an impressive 57.7 percent in the opening stanza but the Hatters hit a sizzling 69.2 percent in the first 20 minutes, hitting 18-of-26 shots from the field, including six-of-10 from beyond the arc.
Four different Bears contributed as Mercer came out of the break on a 10-2 run over the first four minutes, cutting the deficit to three and bringing the Homecoming crowd to life. Mercer missed an opportunity to pull even again, when trailing 50-45, a foul was called on Gabe McMillen and, in the ensuing scramble, Jacob Skogen hit the floor. After a lengthy delay and a review of the television replay, a technical foul was called on Stetson's Thomas. Senior forward Will Emerson missed both free throws and the Bears turned the ball over on the possession.
However, the Hatters failed to take advantage, missing their next two shots and Mercer pulled even on a Skogen 3-pointer and a layup by Brown. The score was tied three more times over the next three minutes before guard Montavious Waters dropped in a fast-break layup with exactly nine minutes remaining to give Mercer a brief 61-59 lead. McMillen answered with a 3-pointer on the other end as Stetson regained the lead.
Following a jumper by sophomore Brian Pfohl that gave Mercer its final lead, at 64-63, the Bears hit a scoring drought, going scoreless for the next 2:23 that allowed Stetson to push out to a five-point lead with just over three minutes remaining. Mercer battled back as Emerson dropped in one of two free throws and Sam Dolan nailed a jumper in the paint, pulling the Bears to within 71-69 at the 1:27 mark. Gordon then hit his layup, setting the stage for the frenzied finish.
This was the third straight contest between the two schools decided by one point. Mercer won 74-73 in Macon last season and topped the Hatters, 82-81, in overtime in DeLand, Fla., on Jan. 24.
Brown finished the night with a career-high 26 points, while Dolan and Waters each added 12 points, while grabbing a game-high six rebounds. Skogen chipped in 10 points.
"Andrew was magnificent tonight," said Mercer head coach Mark Slonaker. "He really stepped up and showed senior leadership."
The Hatters cooled off after their red-hot start, shooting 50.9 percent from the field, while the Bears shot 49.2 percent. The rebounding battle was almost even, with Stetson claiming a 32-31 edge on the boards.
"They are a good team," added Slonaker. "They played well and there was nothing we could do to stop them in the first half, but our defense got us back in it."
Mercer steps out of conference play for the final time this season as the Bears visit Savannah State Monday with tip off at 7 p.m. at Tiger Arena. The Bears downed Savannah State 88-63 on Dec. 1 in Mercer's home opener.