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Seniors lead the way on Senior Night to help keep Bears’ streak alive

The six Mercer Bears seniors after their victory over Western Carolina (left to right) Demetre Rivers, Desmond Ringer, Stephon Jelks, Ria'n Holland, Jordan Strawberry and Rashad Lewis. Photo by Christian Hartley.
The six Mercer Bears seniors after their victory over Western Carolina (left to right) Demetre Rivers, Desmond Ringer, Stephon Jelks, Ria'n Holland, Jordan Strawberry and Rashad Lewis. Photo by Christian Hartley.

For Mercer basketball’s six player senior class, tonight was a bittersweet moment as they played in their final home game as Bears. What better way to go out than by leading their team to victory in front of a packed house in Hawkins Arena?

After the game, each of the seniors echoed the message of senior forward Stephon Jelks, who said, “I’m gonna miss the fans. The best thing I’m gonna miss about Hawkins Arena is just the fan interaction.”

Four of the six seniors played in tonight’s game, with Ria’n Holland and Rashad Lewis not playing due to injury. Despite being just four of the ten players that got action for Mercer, Demetre Rivers, Desmond Ringer, Jordan Strawberry and Stephon Jelks combined for 49 of Mercer’s 81 points, pulled down 19 of the team’s 30 rebounds, dished out 13 of the team’s 19 assists, and all were perfect from the free throw line.

After the game, Coach Hoffman called the seniors’ last game emotional for him. He also expressed his hopes that his players get an opportunity to play more games this season, potentially referencing their final game of the season Friday against The Citadel, and the SoCon tournament that takes place from March 1 to March 5.

Senior Demetre Rivers soars in the air to lay down a dunk. Photo by Rylee Kirk.

Tuesday night’s showdown was quite the up-and-down affair. Both teams were shooting the lights out early, with each shooting above 60 percent through the opening five minutes. It was Demetre Rivers who led the Bears early and often, scoring 10 of Mercer’s first 12 points. After knocking down three free throws late in the first half, Rivers joined the Mercer 1,000 point club for his career. The senior forward finished the game with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting, and pulled down six rebounds.

“I'm so happy for him; he's an amazing guy,” Hoffman said about the senior forward after the game. “He works hard every day, and I'm excited that he's joined the 1,000-point club. This might be one of his best performances.”

Fellow senior Desmond Ringer also played an impressive game. The senior forward shot a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, scoring 14 points and grabbing six rebounds for the night.

Mercer needed these strong performances in a gritty game like Tuesday’s. The Bears trailed 28-27 with 4:42 remaining in the first half before Mercer, led by Rivers, stretched out a 10-0 run to take a nine point lead, 37-28. At halftime, one thing that stood out was how well both teams had sustained their impressive shooting numbers, with Mercer shooting it at a 57 percent and the Catamounts shooting similarly well at an even 50 percent. The halftime score showed Mercer in front 42-33.

The second half box score only shows Mercer out-scoring Western Carolina by nine points. However, after scoring a basket just 13 seconds into the second half, Mercer never led by less than double-digits. The Bears were in full control the rest of the way through.  

The closest the Catamounts got after Mercer went up by 13 points within the first minute of the second half was 67-55 with 7:36 to play. Mercer then responded with a 10-2 run to go up by 20, securing it’s largest lead of the evening with 4:05 left.

The teams traded baskets down the stretch, with Mercer securing another impressive victory in the end. The final score was 81-64, sending the team’s seniors a proper farewell from Hawkins Arena.

“We were fortunate to find a way to win tonight against a very well-coached team,” Hoffman said after the game.

He went on to explain that he believes his team is trending in the right direction, and how important he believes momentum is this late in the season.

“Where we were a few weeks ago, a lot of senior teams would have checked it in,” Hoffman said about his team’s losing streak in early January. “But we had hope and I credit our seniors for keeping that hope alive.”

Outside of the seniors, Ross Cummings made strong contributions to the victory, scoring 19 points on 5-of-10 from the field in 33 minutes of action. It’s the eight consecutive game of double-figure scoring numbers for the sophomore guard as he continues to light up the stat sheet.

Mercer’s record improves to 16-13 on the season, surpassing last season’s total victory mark with several games still left to be played. The Bears also improve to 9-7 in SoCon. For Western Carolina, they fall to 12-17 on the season and 7-9 in the SoCon.

The Bears have now stretched their winning streak to six games as they continue to play well in the final games of the regular season. There is still one more game to be played for Mercer, a road battle in Charleston, S.C. with The Citadel.

The final game of the Bears regular season will be this Friday, with tip-off set for 6 p.m. (ET). The game will air live on ESPN3 for all those not traveling to Charleston to see the game live. The Bulldogs are fresh off a stunning road upset victory over SoCon-leading ETSU on Tuesday evening, and will be riding a fresh wave of momentum heading into the matchup.

“There’s still some great things that can happen for this team,” Hoffman said about his team’s outlook moving forward. “It’s definitely not over yet.”


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