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Bruins Courageous, Fall at Mercer in A-Sun Quarters

Bruins Courageous, Fall at Mercer in A-Sun Quarters

March 4, 2010

Box Score

MACON, GA. - - Belmont men's basketball left it all on the floor Thursday night at host Mercer in the Atlantic Sun Quarterfinals, but in the latest in a series full of nail biters, the Bears took an 87-81 decision.

After earning a share of its third Atlantic Sun Regular Season Championship in the past five years, Belmont received a No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and drew the host Bears.

The game marked the sixth meeting between Belmont and Mercer over the past two years, with the previous five games all going down to the wire. The Bruins won four of those five contests, including 65-64 in last year's Atlantic Sun Tournament.

With a vocal University Center crowd ready to cheer on the Bears, Belmont quickly showcased the form that has made it one of the nation's best road teams over the last five seasons.

Behind unselfish play and crisp passing, the Bruins made their first five three-point field goal attempts in building a 21-9 lead seven-plus minutes in. Two interior baskets from sophomore Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) increased the lead to 26-12 with 10:31 left in the half.

The torrid offensive play from both teams continued, as evidenced when freshman Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Ala.) answered a Jeff Smith three-pointer with a coast-to-coast drive and finish.

Sophomore Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) scored inside to give Belmont a 33-20 lead with 7:01 left in the half before the Bears replied.

James Florence capped a lightning quick 12-0 Mercer run with a deep three-pointer to make the score 33-32.

But the Bruins stayed strong and did not relinquish the lead heading to half. Freshman Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) and sophomore Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) added three-pointers while Hedgepeth and Saunders provided free throws late in the half. The Bruins led 44-38 at the break.

Both teams shot well in the opening 20 minutes; Belmont shot 50 percent (16-for-32) from the field - including 8-for-17 from three-point distance. Mercer shot 44 percent but made half of its 14 tries from behind the arc.

Clark and Florence each had 11 first half points.

Belmont opened the second half well, as a determined screen-and-roll play saw Clark feed Hedgepeth for an easy layin and a 46-38 lead. But unfortunately for the Bruins, the most active member of the team in the second half would be head athletic trainer Paul Malloy.

On Belmont's first defensive possession of the second half, a Mercer player would fall into Hedgepeth's right leg. The team's leading rebounder and field goal percentage shooter would be quickly attended to by athletic trainers from both teams, before eventually easing towards the Bruin sideline.

As Malloy worked on Hedgepeth in the tunnel area, Belmont pressed onward. A layin from Saunders, a three-pointer from Hanlen, two free throws from freshman Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio), and a conventional three-point play from Clark accounted for a 10-2 Belmont run and a 56-43 lead with 16:40 left.

But again Florence sparked a Mercer reply. A deep three-pointer and an offensive rebound basket from Brandon Moore inched the Bears within 60-55 with 12:06 remaining. Then, just as Malloy was completing his assessment of Hedgepeth's injury, Belmont junior Jordan Campbell (Indianapolis, Ind.) was struck in the face as both teams pursued a loose ball in the lane.

Play was stopped, Campbell was forced to leave the game and would not return. The loss of one of the Bruins' top perimeter defenders and three-point shooters could not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, Belmont went up 62-55 with 10:48 left on a putback from senior Keaton Belcher (Butler, Ky.). An E.J. Kusnyer three-pointer and another Florence drive got the Bears within 62-60.

But effort plays from junior Jon House (Guelph, Ont., Canada) - first an offensive rebound basket and then a steal and setup for a Clark layin - helped Belmont push back to a 66-60 edge with 8:15 left.

But Belmont's defense - the team's calling card all season in leading the league in field goal percentage defense and three-point field goal percentage - was trumped by singular offensive play from the Bears.

Another deep wing trey from Florence and a conventional three-point play from Emerson tied the game at 68 with 5:24 to go.

With Belmont's offensive rhythm stunted by the injuries to Hedgepeth and Campbell, and following an exchange of defensive stops, Jeff Smith made a three-pointer to give Mercer its first lead of the game, 71-68, with 4:19 left.

Hanlen made two free throws to get the Bruins within one with 3:18 to go, before Emerson scored off a high-low feed.

Then after Hanlen rimmed out a wing three-pointer, Belmont fouled Smith attempting to get a steal. Smith made the first of two free throws to extend to a 74-70 Bear lead, before missing the second. But Emerson grabbed a key offensive rebound to give Mercer another possession.

As fate would have it, Emerson would close the possession with an interior basket off a Smith feed to push the lead to 76-70 with two minutes left.

On Belmont's next possession Belcher missed a three-point attempt, leading to a Florence end-to-end layin and a 78-70 lead with 1:33 left.

But with the University Center virtually coming apart at the seams with noise and emotions, the Bruins kept fighting.

Two free throws from Kerron Johnson got Belmont within six with 1:26 left. Then after one Smith free throw, House scored along the baseline to get the Bruins within 79-74 with 1:16 left.

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd utilized substitutions and timeouts to maximize possessions for the Bruins in the final 90 seconds. Mercer broke Bruin pressure and found Moore at the rim for a slam and an 81-74 lead with 1:07 left.

But Clark quickly answered with a deep three to make the score 81-77 with 59 seconds left. Then the Bruins forced Florence into a turnover and Johnson was fouled driving to the basket. He calmly made both free throws to trim the margin to two with 43 seconds to go.

After Florence made one free throw, House again scored along the baseline to get the Bruins back within 82-81 with 28 seconds left.

Belmont nearly created a steal on subsequent full court pressure before fouling Florence. He made two free throws to give Mercer a three-point lead.

The Bruins proceeded to cross the timeline and call timeout with 15 seconds left to setup a final play. Belmont designed a play for Clark along the baseline, but three Mercer defenders rotated out and challenged a potential game-tying three-point attempt.

Clark elected to fake and pass inside to a cutting Hedgepeth - who admirably re-entered the game late with a heavy leg brace, but was clearly not himself. The pass with 11 seconds left was tipped by Mark Hall and stolen by the Bears.

Mercer made three free throws in the final seven seconds to provide the final margin.

It was a painful result for Belmont after playing hard and leading the first 36 minutes of the game. All told, Belmont shot 48 percent (28-for-58) from the field - including 10-for-29 from three-point distance. But after making their first five three-point attempts of the game, the Bruins went 5-for-24 from behind the arc the rest of the game.

Belmont outrebounded Mercer 36-29.

But Mercer's shooting touch was the difference in the game. The Bears shot 53 percent (29-for-55) from the field - including 11-for-21 from three-point distance. Mercer was just the third team to shoot over 50 percent from the field in a game against Belmont this season. Kansas and Wright State were the other two teams.

Clark led three Bruins in double figures with 19 points. Hanlen scored a career-high 16 points and added five assists. Saunders scored 11. House had eight points and nine rebounds.

Florence had 24 points for Mercer (15-16).

Belmont is 19-12.