After a rare wire-to-wire win against the Atlantic Sun Conference’s worst team two nights earlier, East Tennessee State was quickly back in rally mode Saturday against one of the best.
The Bucs managed just 13 points in the first half and couldn’t pull off another big comeback in a 71-54 loss to Mercer. They got as close as three midway through the second half in the Dome before running out of gas.
“Seems like we’ve been playing from behind all year,” said sophomore forward John Walton, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half. “We’ve come back and won some games, but we’d rather not have to do it.”
The Bears saw a 16-point advantage shrink to 41-38 after a technical foul on coach Bob Hoffman with 10:39 to play. But they responded with a 10-point run and eased on to their fifth straight victory.
Mercer (18-9, 11-3) temporarily pulled into a first-place tie in the conference with Florida Gulf Coast, which played later at Lipscomb.
The Bucs fell to 9-19, 7-8 after seeing their modest two-game win streak end. They had rallied from 20 points down in the second half to beat Stetson a week ago, then defeated Kennesaw State 79-70 on Thursday night.
There was no carryover against the Bears, who had beaten them by 19 in the first meeting this season.
The Bucs scored the first basket of the game and then produced just one free throw over the next 10 minutes. They trailed 17-3.
It was a 27-13 game at the half as the Bucs shot 3 of 19 (15 percent) from the field. But the momentum swung their way in the second half, as it often has this season, and they got back into contention.
Back-to-back baskets by Walton, who was coming off a career-high 23-point performance, made it 33-24. He and Jarvis Jones spurred the team on until it was 41-37.
Hoffman, always working the officials, then picked up a technical for arguing a no-call at the Mercer end of the floor. Jones went to the foul line and made the second of two free throws. The Bucs had the ball and a chance to tie.
Instead, the Bears caught fire again.
Langston Hall scored four points and Bud Thomas had three during the 10-point flurry that ended with a Travis Smith 3-pointer at the 7:55 mark. The Bucs never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
“The second half we had a great run with a lot of energy,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “I thought when they got the technical, we really had an opportunity there. We just got outcoached and outplayed the last 10 minutes.
“We were pathetic at both ends of the court.”
Jones led the Bucs with 19 points but was 5 of 15 from the field and missed half of his 10 free throws. Hunter Harris chipped in with 10 points; he made 8 of 10 free throws.
It was a scoreless game for the slumping Lester Wilson. The redshirt freshman went 0-for-5 from the field in his fourth straight game in single digits. Averaging 14.2 points for the season, Wilson has 16 points over those four games.
“The way he shoots the ball, he needs to keep shooting,” said Jones. “He’ll get out of it sooner or later.”
Smith led the Bears with 16 points. His two 3-pointers 30 seconds apart in the final five minutes laid to rest any thoughts of another ETSU comeback.
Smith was 4 of 5 from long range, and Mercer was 12 of 25 as a team.
Jakob Gollon chipped in with 15 points and seven rebounds, and Hall had 12 points and five assists.
The Bears held a 36-25 rebounding edge and assisted on 17 of their 21 field goals. They again showed themselves to be perhaps the most resilient team in the A-Sun.
“They always find a way to get a bucket and just make it simple,” said Jones. “It happens every time we play them.”
Bartow agrees that Mercer has all the pieces to win the A-Sun tournament, particularly on its home floor.
“They won 27 games a year ago, and they’re a veteran, experienced, talented team,” he said. “The only way we were going to win today was to play great, and we didn’t.”