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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024
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The Ruling: Win and you're in

Ross Cummings dribbles up the court against Western Carolina.
Ross Cummings dribbles up the court against Western Carolina.

The formula is pretty simple now for the Bears: Win, and you get to keep playing.

The regular season doesn’t mean anything now. Mercer’s 18-13 record. The trials and tribulations. The ups. The downs. The injuries. The game winners.

None of it matters.

Win, and you’re in. The Bears will need to do that three times in Asheville this weekend if they want to relive some of the magic from their 2014 run in the NCAA Tournament.

Win, and you’re in. It’s something the Bears have done pretty darn well recently -- eight straight times to be exact.

Win, and you’re in. Sure, it sounds simple enough, but nine other teams are shooting for the same glory the Bears are clawing for in the U.S. Cellular Center.

So what’s important as Mercer embarks on that journey?

(1) It’s getting hot in here

Not even Nelly could express the heat in the Bears’ kitchen. Mercer enters the SoCon tournament winners of eight straight outings by an average of 10 points per game.

It’s the longest winning streak the Bears have ever had in SoCon play. Suffice to say, Mercer has never before ridden this kind of momentum into a SoCon tournament. That momentum creates quite the storyline for the tournament.

While the Bears are winners of eight straight, the conference’s top seed for much of the year (East Tennessee) dropped three straight home outings to end the regular season. The tournament’s current one seed, UNCG, has won eight of its last nine.

But who was that one loss? The Mercer Bears.

Furman, the three seed, enters the tournament on a six-game win streak. However, the Bears have made this interesting. Once seemingly down and out, especially when leading scorer Ria’n Holland went out with injury, Mercer has clawed back to being a legitimate contender.

(2) Not one, not two, but three?

The Bears open the tournament against No. 5 seed Wofford, a team they have beaten twice in close games over the last three weeks. Mercer should enter the game with confidence, certainly. But it’s not easy to beat a team three times in one season.

“It’s difficult to beat a team one time in a season. It’s difficult to beat them a second time if you’re fortunate enough to do that,” said head coach Bob Hoffman. “They’ll be ready for us. It would be harder no matter who we’re playing, but it’ll probably be even harder against a team like Wofford.”

Hoffman said the team will have to focus on the details of that opening game. And, while it is difficult to beat a team that many times, Hoffman said the players don’t think about that once they’re on the court playing.

(3) The Bears’ Achilles’ heel

Mercer is 1-9 against East Tennessee since joining the SoCon. Call the Bucs what you will, the Bears’ Achilles’ heel. Their kryptonite. Their Goliath.

They’ve simply been a tough matchup for Mercer the last four seasons. The Bucs have eliminated Mercer from the SoCon tournament the last two seasons; so, can Mercer avoid that fate again this year?

The Bears may have gotten a major break with ETSU losing the last three games of the season. If Mercer were to beat Wofford, it would then face No. 1 seed UNCG in the semifinals instead of ETSU.

Mercer would not face the Bucs until the championship.

“That would be a great thing if we play them,” Hoffman said. “That means we’re playing to get to go [to the NCAA Tournament].”

(4) Holland won’t make an appearance in the tournament

The senior didn’t travel with the team to the tournament. According to the program, he could potentially be available for postseason play after the tournament, but that is still very much up in the air.

One thing is certain: the Bears have figured out how to play without him. It took the team a couple games to find their rhythm, but it has been riding it strongly on the backs of Jordan Strawberry, the emergence of Ross Cummings and the steady play of Demetre Rivers, Stephon Jelks and Desmond Ringer.



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