(To read media accounts of the game, click here.)
AUBURN, Ala. – Behind another huge effort on the boards and clutch free throw shooting, the Mercer men’s basketball team won its third straight game with a 78-74 victory over Auburn in the first round of the Chicago Invitational Challenge Wednesday night at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.
Mercer senior Calvin Henry drained two free throws with 2.4 seconds on the clock to give Mercer a 78-74 lead and the Bears improved to 3-0 to open the season for the first time since the 1984-85 campaign that saw the Bears advance to the NCAA Tournament.
The last time Mercer defeated two SEC teams in the same season was 1952-53, when the Bears knocked off Georgia, 68-63, and Mississippi, 78-40.
Auburn was the second straight member of the Southeastern Conference to fall to the Bears – Mercer upset West Division favorite Alabama, 72-69, just two days ago in Tuscaloosa.
With a sizable contingent of Mercer students roaring in the end zone, the Bears hit 7-of-9 free throws inside the final five minutes to hold off the Tigers and avenge last season’s 68-59 loss to Auburn
Mercer sophomore forward Brian Mills drained two free throws to break a 67-67 tie with 4:50 showing and Florence drained a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner as Mercer went on to build a 73-68 advantage with 2:29 on the clock. Still leading by five, AU’s Quantez Robertson hit an inside basket and following a timeout by Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo, the Bears’ James Florence ran the clock down but turned the ball over with less than 27 seconds on the clock - and two seconds on the shot clock.
Tigers’ senior Korvotney Barber scored inside, trimming the MU advantage to just 75-74 with 21.6 ticks showing. After a Mercer timeout, Michael Ellis found guard E.J. Kusnyer open on the Bears’ end of the court, but Kusnyer elected to pull the ball out instead of laying it up and was fouled before he could dish the ball off. He hit one-of-two from the line with 9.4 seconds remaining and the Tigers hurried the ball downcourt, but Robertson was called for charging as he went inside trying to tie the game for the 11th time. Calvin Henry was fouled and sealed the game with his two from the charity stripe.
Both teams opened up patient on offense, with Mercer using a 10-0 run from the 17:40 mark to the 15-minute mark to gain a 13-4 advantage. Auburn’s Frankie Sullivan hit a 3-pointer to momentarily stop the Bears’ surge, but moments later Emerson collected one of the Orange and Black’s seven offensive rebounds in the opening half, was fouled and hit two from the line to spark another 7-2 run, giving the Bears a 22-12 lead with 11:29 remaining in the first half.
Following Emerson’s two from the line, sophomore Brian Mills scored five straight for the Bears, dropping in a basket then recording a traditional three-point play for the 10-point advantage.
Auburn (1-1) then got untracked offensively on their home court, answering with an 11-0 run of their own, fueled by junior guard Tay Waller. In the midst of the spurt, Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman was whistled for a technical foul for leaving the coaches’ box to protest an apparent travel by an Auburn player who stole an errant Mercer pass, drove the court and laid the ball off the bottom of the rim and came down with it in his hands.
Neither team was able to build more than a four-point advantage in the last six-plus minutes of the opening frame - that being Mercer’s 44-40 lead at intermission.
There were three ties inside the final five minutes, with Mercer’s James Florence scoring 12 of his 16 first half points in the final four minutes prior to intermission.
As they did in the win over the Crimson Tide, the Bears held a commanding 22-9 first-half rebounding advantage over Auburn.
In a second half that featured seven ties and eight lead changes Mercer held the lead that counted.
Henry opened the second half with an acrobatic move inside to score the basket and hit the ensuing free throw, boosting Mercer’s 44-40 halftime lead to seven but the Tigers answered with 8-0 run to grab a short-lived 48-47 lead. Mercer’s BeJay Corley came alive, battling for a basket inside, then less than a minute later he followed with another strong bucket, pushing MU’s to 51-48 with under 16 minutes remaining in the contest.
With Auburn clinging to a 59-58 lead, both teams suffered through a scoring drought og nearly three minutes before Korvotney Barber scored for the Tigers. AU edged out to a 63-60 lead with under nine minutes on the clock, but Emerson drained a high-arching 3-pointer from the top of the circle at the 8:17 mark, tying the score for the fifth time of the half.
Unlike last season’s matchup in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum when Auburn claimed a double-digit second half lead en route to defeating the Bears, tonight’s game went to the wire.
Florence led all scorers with 25 points, while Daniel Emerson added another double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Mills netted 12 points and Henry finished with 11 points and six boards.
Tay Waller posted a team-high 22 points for Auburn.
Mercer plays host to Georgia Tech in a homecoming matchup on Saturday, Nov. 22, with tip-off slated for 1 p.m. at the University Center. The game will be televised live on Fox Sports Net.