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Bears outlast Keydets 62-56, earn third straight SoCon victory

Mercer at Tennessee men's basketball at Thompson Boling arena in Knoxville, TN.
Mercer at Tennessee men's basketball at Thompson Boling arena in Knoxville, TN.

Mercer men’s basketball’s had the opportunity to turn January 18 into quite the momentous occasion for several reasons.

The Bears went into Thursday’s game on a two-game SoCon winning streak, and beginning to build momentum toward getting their season back on track.

Not only that, the Bears were sitting at 9-9 overall on the season, and had the opportunity to move their record back into a winning record for the first time since December 28, 2017 when they knocked off Kennesaw State.

If that wasn’t enough, head coach Bob Hoffman was sitting on 499 wins in his coaching career. Coach Hoffman was just one victory away from 500 wins.

The only thing standing in the way of these three things coming to fruition was a SoCon road challenge against the Keydets of Virginia Military Institute.

The Bears started hot out of the gate, taking it to the Keydets over the first five minutes. At the 14:46 mark, the Bears were leading 16-6, mostly due to 11 points from leading scorer Ria’n Holland.

Over the next few minutes, Mercer and VMI traded baskets with the Bears holding steady on their 10 point lead with 12:07 to go. The Bears looked ready to pull away from the Keydets.

However, the Keydets answered the Bears’ momentum with their own drive. Over the next three minutes, VMI went on an 11-0 run led by two three pointers from guard Bubba Parham to take a one point lead with 9:07 to play.

The Keydets and Bears went back and forth over the next three minutes before a quick 6-0 run gave the Bears a 30-24 lead with just 4:20 to go. Another opportunity for the Bears to pull away going into halftime.

It was another missed opportunity, as Mercer was unable to pull away before the halftime buzzer rung. After the Keydets cut the lead down to two with 2:21 to go, Mercer answered and stretched the lead to five with 1:12 to go.

Neither team scored over the final 1:12, and Mercer entered halftime on top of VMI, 34-29.

Ria’n Holland led all scorers with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-6 from three point range. Jordan Strawberry dished out assists as he as all year, going into halftime with five assists to go along with five points and and two rebounds.

Mercer came out hot in the second half, stretching its’ lead to 10 with 17:30 to go, and were able to maintain a lead of at least eight points through the opening 5 minutes of the second half.

VMI was able to cut the lead down to five with 14 minutes to play before both teams fell into a shooting drought where no points were scored by either team for three minutes.

After several more scoring droughts by both teams, due in part to turnovers by Mercer and missed open shots by VMI, the Bears stretched their lead out to seven with 5:56 to go.

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Just when both coaches thought their team’s offensive might pick up, there was another 3 minute scoring drought until the 2:39 mark. It was finally broken when Bears’ forward Demetre Rivers, as he had done twice before in the half, knocked home a jump shot to put the Bears ahead 59-53 with just 2:39 left to play.

The Bears found themselves in another close SoCon game. It was their fourth Socon contest that was going to come down to the final minutes. The Bears were 0-2 on the road in the Socon, and a win would give the team a much needed confidence boost moving forward.

Over the final 2:39 of the ball game, the Bears defense cracked down. After missing two straight shots, the Keydets knocked down a three pointer with 43 seconds to go to cut the lead down to just three points. Those were the Keydets last points.

VMI opted to foul Mercer guard Jordan Strawberry, who went 1-2 from the free thrown to stretch Mercer’s lead to four points with 36 seconds left.

The Bears defense hung tough, and two Jordan Strawberry free throws sealed the deal in the final stretch for the Bears. They held VMI to just 1-of-6 from the field over the final three minutes of the game, and the Bears made their free throws when they counted.

When it was all said and done, the Bears had come out ahead in a hard fought 62-56 victory.

The Bears were led in scoring by guard Ria’n Holland with 16 points in just 19 minutes of action. Holland has scored in double-figures in each game this season. Senior forward Stephon Jelks turned in his third consecutive double-double and fifth overall on the season, scoring 13 points to go along with a team-high 11 rebounds. Senior guard Jordan Strawberry turned in another well rounded performance with 10 points, a team high six assists and five rebounds on the night.

Thursday’s victory marked the Bears first SoCon road win of the season, while also moving the Bears to 3-3 in SoCon play.

Head coach Bob Hoffman had notched a coaching milestone with this win--career victory number 500. After the game, Coach Hoffman’s focus was on his players. Here’s what he had to say:

“This was a special win tonight. There's nothing like winning on the road and being around a bunch of guys that want to put forth the effort like these guys do. I've been blessed with my family and being around a bunch of great players and coaches over the years. The focus should be on these guys and that's where I want to keep it.”

On Saturday January 20, the Bears will continue their SoCon road swing with a match up against UNCG out of Greensboro, N.C. Tip off for the matchup is set for 5 p.m. (ET) and will air live on WatchESPN.


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