Bud Thomas has been playing mostly a complementary role for the best basketball team in the Atlantic Sun Conference this season.
On Friday night, Mercer’s senior guard was the difference.
Thomas lit up East Tennessee State for seven 3-pointers in the first half on his way to 28 points as the streaking Bears raced to a 90-77 victory in the Dome.
It was the eighth straight win for Mercer, which improved to 18-5 and stands atop the A-Sun standings at 9-1, and its fifth in a row over the Bucs (11-11, 4-5).
“We did probably enough decent things offensively,” said ETSU coach Murry Bartow. “The problem was that we absolutely couldn’t get stops, and we couldn’t rebound defensively. Thomas killed us.”
An extra day of preparation — the game was postponed Thursday by treacherous road conditions in the Atlanta area — apparently didn’t help the Bucs.
The Bears overcame an early 10-5 deficit with 13 straight points and were in command the rest of the way. Thomas hit a pair of treys in the run and then finished the half with three consecutive bombs in the last 2:20 as Mercer took a 45-31 advantage. They assisted on 13 of their 16 field goals, including a dozen 3-pointers.
“We played really good defense in the first half,” said Mercer coach Bob Hoffman, “and our rebounding was fantastic. That led to some open threes. Bud Thomas has really been seeing the basket well recently.”
The season-high crowd of 3,350, with a large student presence, was never able to get into the game for long. Each time the Bucs challenged the Mercer lead, Thomas would squeeze off another three, or the Bears would grab an offensive rebound and stick it back.
They controlled the boards 38-24, with Jakob Gollon collecting 11 and Thomas eight.
The Bucs shot 58 percent from the field in the second half, yet only outscored the Bears 46-45. The teams mostly traded baskets for the last 10 minutes, with Mercer never holding less than a 10-point edge.
The damage had already been done.
Thomas had been averaging just 9.2 points a game for the season, but he’s known as a shooter. He made nine 3-pointers, a program record, while scoring a career-high 31 points against Lipscomb two weeks ago.
Against the Bucs, he went 8 of 14 from behind the arc, and the Bears were 14 of 27 as a team.
“He’s a good player, a good shooter,” said Rashawn Rembert, who led the Bucs with 19 points. “I think he missed his first two and then started lighting it up.”
Said Bartow, “It’s not like we didn’t know who he was; we had discussed him ad nauseum. We were scrambling some defensively, made some mistakes and he got some good looks. When you get hot like that, the basket really starts looking big.”
The Bears, with five seniors in their starting lineup, have been making everything look easy for the last month. They’re outscoring conference opponents by an average of 79.3 to 61.2, and their last six wins have all been by at least 13 points.
“We’ve worked really hard and pointed to every game,” said Hoffman. “We have a lot of different guys who can step up, and that’s what makes this team special and unique. It’s a great luxury we have … we have a lot of pieces that fit together.”
The Bears, shooting 55 percent from the field, also got 13 points from Anthony White and 12 from Langston Hall, their all-conference point guard. Gollon chipped in with 10 and seven assists to go with his 11 rebounds.
Mercer had 22 assists against 10 turnovers in what qualified as a clinic all around.
The Bucs, meanwhile, had four players score at least a dozen points. Jalen Riley finished with 15, while Lester Wilson netted 14 and Hunter Harris 12.
Against some other team, it might have been enough.
“The offense looked good, but the defense was not up to par,” said Rembert. “They got 90 on our home floor. They got any shot they wanted.”
It was a very quiet night for Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard. ETSU’s second-leading scorer this season went 0-for-6 from the field and finished with one point, one rebound and two assists in 26 minutes.
The Bucs will try to bounce back Sunday at home against Kennesaw State, the last-place team in the Atlantic Sun. Tipoff is 2 o’clock.