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Bears top Grand Canyon University, advance to second round of CBI tourney

Mercer Bears their huddle during their game against Grand Canyon University.
Mercer Bears their huddle during their game against Grand Canyon University.

After an early exit from the SoCon tourney, the Bears were back in action Wednesday for opening round action in the 2018 College Basketball Invitational Tournament.

The first challenge of the tournament came in the form of the Antelopes of Grand Canyon University. As the lower ranked seed in the tournament, Mercer was forced to travel to Phoenix, AZ to face the Antelopes at their arena.

The Bears were plagued by two things in their SoCon tournament loss to Wofford, turnovers and poor shooting. Both of those things needed to be corrected if Mercer was going to keep its season alive.

Mercer corrected both, and also got a return from senior Ria’n Holland after missing every game since Jan. 18 due to a hand injury. Holland finished the game with 10 points in 20 minutes of action off the bench.

“It was fun to see Ria'n (Holland) get another opportunity,” head coach Bob Hoffman said. “He made some big plays for us and gave us one more ball handler which we needed in certain situations.”

The Bears started off the game hot, going up 16-9 after eight minutes of first half action. Just three minutes later, the Bears had taken a 24-15 lead and looked to have all the momentum after a slam dunk from Demetre Rivers.

The Antelopes responded with a quick 7-0 run and just like that the Mercer lead was cut down to two points as the first half began to draw to a close.

Back and forth action continued over the first half’s final minutes, and the halftime score saw Mercer clinging to a 36-33 lead. After shooting a season low field goal percentage in their last game, the Bears came out and shot 52 percent in the first 20 minutes.

After posting 0 points in the Bears’ last outing, sophomore guard Ross Cummings led the Bears with 12 points in the first half of the game. He finished with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including five 3-pointers.

The second half started off the opposite of the first half Mercer. Grand Canyon scored the first four points of the second half to take their first lead of the game in just over a minute into the half.

The Bears and Antelopes exchanged leads and ties over the next several minutes, before GCU went on a small run to take their largest lead of the game 59-53 midway through the final period.

This time it was Mercer who responded. The Bears went on an 8-2 run to tie the game at 61 with seven minutes to go. Tournament basketball at its best.

With 3:32 left, Mercer led by just two points and the shot clock was running down into single digits. Jordan Strawberry faked right several times, before pulling up for a deep 3-pointer and sank it.

The shot put the Bears up five, and was a true dagger into the heart of the Antelopes defensive efforts.

The final few minutes saw the teams trade baskets, but some clutch free throws from the Bears iced the game down the stretch. The Bears triumphed 78-73 over Grand Canyon who was 16-2 at home this season.

“They (GCU) were a great team; they were 16-2 at home and the environment was maybe as good as we've played in on the road,” Hoffman said. “The atmosphere was electric tonight and our guys stuck together and got it done."

Mercer out-shot and out-rebounded Grand Canyon. The Bears shot 51 percent from the field and pulled down 36 rebounds, compared to just 45 percent and 30 rebounds for the Antelopes.

“It was an amazing team effort.The guys were ready from the opening tip,” Hoffman said. “We had an edge all night and we found a way to make plays. They were playing for each other and I love how we competed.”

Senior guard Strawberry played the entire game and finished with 21 points and eight assists with just two turnovers. Senior Demetre Rivers also contributed 13 points and 9 rebounds.

The Bears advance to the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational, and will face the North Texas Mean Green March 19, time TBA.

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