NASHVILLE, Tenn. - - Despite uncharacteristically poor shooting, Belmont men's basketball rode a career-high 25 points from junior Kerron Johnson (Huntsville, Tenn.) to defeat Mercer, 82-78, Saturday.
Much like in its conference opening victory over Kennesaw State Thursday, Belmont jumped out quickly. Leading 8-7 early in the first half, senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) capped a 15-4 Bruin run to give Belmont a 23-11 lead midway through the first half.
After Mercer closed to within five points on a three-point field goal from Langston Hall, the lead grew back to 15 behind the hot-shooting of junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.). Clark's four first half three-pointers pushed the lead back to 42-27, and energized the Bruin student section.
Belmont led 44-33 at halftime.
Belmont shot 43 percent (13-for-30) in the first half - including 6-for-15 from three-point distance. The Bruins also went 12-for-14 from the free throw line in the first half.
Belmont got two strong interior baskets from senior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) early in the second half, but Mercer had a reply each time.
Justin Cecil's two free throws capped a 13-3 Bear run to tie the score at 54 with 10:24 left.
Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman seemingly matched Belmont head coach Rick Byrd substitution for substitution; attempting to keep his Bear starters fresh for the stretch drive. Moreover, Belmont never got its pressure defense and deep rotation fully rolling, a credit largely to the play of Langston Hall.
Tied at 58, Johnson sliced through the Mercer defense and provided an impassioned conventional three-point play, to give Belmont a 61-58 lead with 9:27 left.
Mercer's Daniel Coursey was also extremely efficient, scoring with post moves and shooting touch.
Redshirt junior Adam Barnes (Clarksville, Tenn.) stretched the lead to 65-62 with 6:31 left on a determined drive. Then after a defensive stop, redshirt sophomore Blake Jenkins (Knoxville, Tenn.) played 'beat the clock' - grabbing a deflected ball with the shot clock winding down and hitting a difficult baseline fadeaway to give the Bruins a 67-62 edge with 5:23 left.
After one Johnson free throw and a Coursey layin, Johnson drained a clutch baseline three-pointer with 4:25 remaining to increase the lead to seven, 71-64.
It largely became a free throw shooting contest in the final four minutes, with both teams in the bonus and physical defense ruling the day.
Hall closed Mercer within 73-70 with 1:51 left.
Then after an exchange of free throws, Belmont led 74-71 with possession under a minute to play. But as Clark drove, the ball got tipped downcourt. A loose ball battle ensued, with Shaquille Harris claiming possession for Mercer and receiving a timeout call in front of the Bear bench with 55 seconds left.
Mercer freed Bud Thomas for a potential game-tying three-point attempt, but his shot rimmed off with 39 seconds to go. Coursey fouled Belmont senior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) on the subsequent rebound.
Hedgepeth proceeded to make the first free throw to extend the lead to 75-71 with 38 seconds left. He missed the second free throw, but after redshirt junior Brandon Baker (Milford, Ohio) kept the ball alive, Hedgepeth snuck through several Mercer players to seize the rebound.
He passed the ball out to Johnson, who was quickly fouled. Johnson then made one of two free throws to increase the margin to 76-71 with 31 seconds left.
Following two Mercer misses, Coursey was fouled on the offensive glass. His two free throws got the Bears within 76-73 with 14 seconds left.
Johnson would be fouled on the next sequence; his two made free throws put the lead back to five, 78-73, with 13 seconds left.
But just as Bruin fans felt safe to exhale, Mercer had one final push.
A quick hail mary pass downcourt to Justin Cecil would be deflected right to Bud Thomas, who scored in rapid fashion to get Mercer within 78-75 with 10 seconds to go.
After a strong inbounds play and two Clark free throws, Belmont would then have to weather a foul on Johnson as Hall was in the act of shooting a three-point shot with five seconds left. The shot narrowly rimmed off, nearly giving Mercer a potential four-point play opportunity.
Hall made all three free throws to close the score to 80-78.
Hanlen would be fouled with four seconds left, and would make both free throws to secure the victory.
All told, Belmont shot 39 percent (22-for-56) from the field - including 8-for-27 from three-point distance. The Bruins went 30-for-40 from the free throw line.
Belmont went 8-for-10 from the free throw line in the final 38 seconds.
Aside from Johnson's 25 points - which included 10 in the final five minutes - Clark scored a season-high 17 points, while Saunders added 12 points and six rebounds.
Hall led Mercer (5-3, 1-1 Atlantic Sun) with 23 points.
The Bruins have won 19 consecutive home games.
Belmont (5-2, 2-0 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Tuesday, Dec. 6 against Tennessee State. Tip-off is set for 7:00 p.m. CT from the Curb Event Center.
The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network. Live video streaming will be available via ASun.TV.