J. Andrew Lockwood
Senior Editor / Columnist
A near sell-out crowd in the University Center saw the final game of Mercer’s basketball season come to an end with a 72-66 loss to the Atlantic Sun Champions, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers. After getting past Belmont 87-81 in the quarterfinals and Jacksonville 66-63 in the semifinals, it appeared that the Bears would be the first team to win the Atlantic Sun Conference championship on their home floor since Florida International did it in 1994.
Mercer’s quarterfinal matchup against the Bruins had plenty on the line as star forward Daniel Emerson was knocked out of the game only a week ago with an eye injury. Belmont had also beat Mercer in the two matchups during the regular season as well as knocked off the Bears in last year’s quarterfinal round of the A-Sun Championship.
After falling behind by as much as 14 points early in the first half due to hot shooting from Belmont’s Ian Clark and Drew Hanlen, Mercer led a furious comeback in the second half in route to shooting 65.2% from the field to win by six points. James Florence would play all 40 minutes, finishing with 24 points and making key free throws down the stretch. Inside, Daniel Emerson was able to overmatch Jon House and Mick Hedgepeth with 19 points and 9 rebounds while teammate Jeff Smith chipped in 16 points to bring the University Center crowd to their feet.
“It was a great advantage to be at home,” commented Emerson after the game. “Anytime in the first or second half when we started to feel a little flat, they did a great job of picking us up. I loved having the Mercer student section near us tonight: I think we might want that to be a permanent move,” he added.
The second night, Mercer faced a familiar A-Sun foe in Jacksonville. Always a physical battle in nature, the Bears battled through 13 lead changes to finally come out on top by three, 66-63. Jumping out to an early lead, the Dolphins and Bears would exchange baskets for most of the first half until Mercer’s 12-3 run to start the second half allowed them to pull away.
Led by guard Ben Smith, Jacksonville valiantly fought back, fouling Florence with 15 seconds left. Florence would sink a pair of free throws to give Mercer a three point lead before the Dolphins aimed to take a last second shot to tie the game. Unfortunately, everyone in the UC Arena knew that it would have to be Smith taking the shot. Keying on the Dolphins’ best shooter, Florence was able to deflect the final shot to win the game, sending Mercer to the A-Sun finals for the first time since 1996.
While Florence only managed 8 points during the contest, Emerson would drop another double-double with 21 points and 18 rebounds, followed by Jeff Smith’s 18 points. JU’s Ben Smith would lead the Dolphins with 19 points on the night.
The championship final, televised on ESPN2, featured an ETSU 20-14 (13-7) team that had defeated Campbell and Kennesaw State as well as Mercer. With 3,200 fans on hand, ETSU found a way to stop Mercer’s offense with a zone defense that keyed on Florence and Emerson, beating the Bears for the first time in three contests this season to advance to the NCAA tournament.
Another slow start plagued the Bears from the beginning as they fell behind 9-0 before Emerson sank a jump shot to cut the lead. Mercer’s offense caught fire late in the first as E.J. Kusnyer hit three consecutive three-point field goals to tie the game, but ETSU was able to put two more points on the scoreboard to lead at halftime 37-35.
“We felt like we would take the lead, but we just couldn’t get a stop,” said Emerson. “They did a great good on us and had a good gameplan. We just had too many turnovers,” he added.
Fouls and tough officiating calls plagued Mercer for a good part of the second half with Brian Mills and E.J. Kusnyer on the bench for a good part of the period, yet the Bucs never led by more the 6 points. ETSU made the shots that mattered down the stretch to pull out the victory, repeating as A-Sun champs for the second year in a row. Kusnyer would lead Mercer with 16 points (five 3-pointers) to tie Campbell’s Eric Smith (2005-06) for the most three-pointers in one season (107). Additionally, Florence would finish with 9 points, finalizing his place atop the Mercer scoring charts at 2,287 points.
Florence’s total ranks 142nd in NCAA Division I history for career points scored. Forward Daniel Emerson also made a mark in his final game as a Bear as the senior grabbed 13 rebounds to set the Atlantic Sun Conference season rebound record at 385. Emerson finishes out the year ranked as the #3 rebounder in the nation.
“These guys are special,” head coach Bob Hoffman relayed during the post-game press conference. “It’s about who they are and how they go about their business. The game didn’t turn out as we wanted, but that wasn’t because they didn’t give it all they had. It’s a blessing for me to coach young men like these guys,” Hoffman added.