JACKSONVILE, Fla.- Behind a balanced offensive attack, the Bears placed five players in double figures as the Mercer men's basketball team topped first-year Atlantic Sun Conference member North Florida, 77-71, Sunday afternoon at UNF Arena.
"It was a big effort on both the offensive and defensive ends," said Mercer head coach Mark Slonaker. "Our guys really stepped up on both ends."
In only the second meeting between the two schools, Mercer (9-16, 7-11 A-Sun) started slowly. The Ospreys jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but the Bears answering with an 11-2 run, powered by Shaddean Aaron's four points and guard Andrew Brown's jumper and 3-pointer, giving Mercer an 11-6 lead.
Coming out of the first media timeout, UNF started using full-court pressure, and it paid dividends, with the Bears turning it over three consecutive trips upcourt, leading to six straight points for the Ospreys. The North Florida run reached 11 straight points, giving the Ospreys a 15-11 advantage at the 12:30 mark.
Forward Sam Dolan picked up a crucial second personal foul with just under 12 minutes left in the half, forcing the big man to the bench midway through the stanza. Dolan had recorded two consecutive double-doubles coming in to the contest.
Neither team was able to build a comfortable cushion over the next three-plus minutes but senior Will Emerson's jumper at the 8:53 mark gave the Bears a slim 22-21 edge. The basket also pushed the senior over the 1,000 point mark of his stellar career at Mercer. Emerson and Brown followed with driving baskets, opening a five-point advantage. But UNF (6-21, 3-15 A-Sun) ran off five straight, capped by a Riley Didion 3-pointer, tied the contest for the second time.
Junior guard Michael Slonaker landed awkwardly after rising to break up an alley-oop attempt by the Ospreys at the 4:31 mark and did not return in the first half, further shortening the Mercer bench.
Andrew Brown's coast-to-coast basket gave Mercer a brief 30-29 lead with 1:40 remaining, but proved to be the last basket for the Bears before intermission, as North Florida ran off six straight points to close out the half, setting the 35-30 halftime deficit.
Dolan wasted no time making his return felt, as he opened the second half scoring with a power basket, but the Ospreys opened an eight-point lead. And, in the process, Emerson was whistled for his third personal foul with just under 18 minutes remaining in the game.
The Bears battled back, chipped away and cut the lead to just one on two separate occasions, eventually tying it at 51 apiece on Alacqua's long-range 3-pointer at the 10:15 mark. The game was tied two more times before Emerson took over despite having picked up his fourth foul. The St. Mary's, Ga., native dropped in a jumper in the paint, then drained a 3-pointer with over five minutes remaining, keying a 7-0 run.
North Florida cut the lead to two points twice in the final two minutes but Aaron came up huge on both occasions, answering with a jumper and then a 3-pointer from the right corner to give Mercer a five-point lead at 1:25.
Alacqua and Emerson combined to hit 5-of-6 free throws inside the final minute to seal the game as UNF was forced to foul.
The Bears won their third consecutive game, handing the Ospreys their sixth straight loss.
Emerson scored a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds with Brown adding 15 points and three assists. Aaron, in his first start since the ETSU contest on Jan. 30, tossed in 14 points, while Alacqua chipped in 13 points. Dolan added 10 points in the winning effort.
The win gave coach Mark Slonaker his 104th victory at Mercer and sole possession of third place on the school's all-time wins list. Emerson, who needed three points to become the 31st member of Mercer's 1,000 point club, passed Reggie Elliott for 30th place on Mercer's all-time scoring list.
The Bears close out the regular season with a two-game homestand, welcoming Gardner-Webb to the University Center Thursday for a 7 p.m. tip off. They then square off against Campbell in the final regular season game Saturday at 2 p.m.