MACON, Ga. - - Playing without two starters, Belmont men's basketball rode its defense, depth and heart in defeating Mercer, 62-61, Saturday night.
After clinching another Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championship and tournament No. 1 seed Thursday night, the Bruins elected to err on the side of caution in regards to two starting players.
A near-capacity Senior Day crowd packed the University Center for the rare instance of two 20-win Atlantic Sun teams meeting in a regular season finale.
Belmont got off to a slow start. With equal parts strong Mercer defense and Bruins' adjusting to a new lineup, the Bears jumped out to an 8-2 lead six minutes in.
But consecutive three-pointers from senior Drew Hanlen (St. Louis, Mo.) and junior Ian Clark (Memphis, Tenn.) and a free throw from senior Mick Hedgepeth (Crossville, Ala.) gave the Bruins a 9-8 lead.
Senior Scott Saunders (New Orleans, La.) was limited in the first half, as he picked up two personal fouls in a one second span.
With Belmont laboring for offense, Mercer inched to a 22-14 lead on a Jakob Gollon basket.
But the Bruins stayed strong, and behind back-to-back three from Clark and Mann, tied the score at 27 at the half.
Belmont shot 36 percent (10-for-28) from the field - including 4-for-13 from three-point distance. The Bruins also outrebounded Mercer, 18-17.
But the positive momentum of the late stages of the first half did not carry over into the second half. The Bruins endured a three-minute scoring drought to start the half, and a Daniel Coursey slam gave Mercer a 34-27 lead with 18:01 left.
After three-pointers from Clark and freshman Reece Chamberlain (Goodlettsville, Tenn.) got Belmont within three, Justin Cecil answered with two straight threes to give Mercer a 42-33 lead with 14:17 remaining.
The Bears would lead by nine twice more, before the Bruins made a stern push. Another Hanlen three-pointer and an interior basket from Saunders got Belmont within 45-41 with 10:39 left.
But a Langston Hall floating bank shot momentarily halted momentum.
Both defenses proved strong throughout. Following an exchange of three-pointers from Clark and Cecil, Chamberlain again provided a lift with a heavily-contested jump shot late in the shot clock.
The run continued with two Mann free throws before Belmont claimed its first lead since 14-13 on a basket from Saunders with 5:21 left.
Clark capped the 8-0 Belmont run with a baseline drive to give the Bruins a three-point lead with 4:41 remaining.
The final stretch would be highlighted by fierce competition, great plays and swings of emotion.
But baskets from Coursey and Travis Smith would put the Bears back on top, 55-54, with 3:09 to go.
Following a timeout, Hanlen buried a deep, rainmaking three-pointer to give the Bruins a 57-55 lead with 2:39 left.
Hall would quickly reply with a layin to tie the score at 57. Undeterred, Hedgepeth delivered a timely post basket to put the Bruins ahead 59-57 with 2:02 left.
Moments later, Hedgepeth would be whistled for a perimeter foul on Travis Smith. Smith would make both ends of a one-and-one to tie the score at 59 with 1:40 left.
On the next Bruin possession, Gollon would steal the ball from Mann near midcourt. Mercer would capitalize, ultimately finding Coursey alone for a slam to give the hosts a 61-59 lead with 1:10 left.
After a Rick Byrd timeout, Belmont freed Hanlen for a clean wing three-pointer. The shot would whirlpool out and Mann would foul Travis Smith in pursuit of the rebound.
Smith, a capable free throw shooter, would miss the front end of a one-and-one with 51 seconds remaining.
The Bruins grabbed the rebound and worked into the frontcourt. Clark would drive the right side and pass to Chamberlain, who rose and attempted a three-point shot.
The shot rimmed off, but Bud Thomas was charged with fouling Chamberlain in the act of shooting with 31 seconds left.
After a brief delay to check Chamberlain's physical condition and whether the attempt was a two-point or three-point shot, Belmont would be awarded three free throws.
With the Mercer crowd in a frenzy, Chamberlain made two of the three free throws to tie the score at 61.
With the shot clock off, the Bears could have played for the final shot of regulation. But the Bruins extended with token full court pressure to force the action.
Hall broke the timeline and passed to an open Gollon, who attempted a open three-point shot with 16 seconds left. The shot missed, and Hedgepeth would be fouled over the back by Coursey with 14 seconds left.
With Belmont in the double bonus, Hedgepeth would be granted two free throws. The senior calmly made the first attempt to give Belmont a one point lead. The second shot rimmed off, and Mercer gained possession.
In the final sequence, Belmont defended well; Hall received a high screen and ultimately passed to Bud Thomas along the baseline. With time winding down, Thomas passed to Gollon, who drove the lane and took an off-balance, left-handed shot as the buzzer sounded.
The shot banked but rimmed off.
It was an emotional, hard earned victory for the short-handed Bruins, with congratulatory high-fives in large supply following the game. In short, it was an ugly masterpiece.
All told, Belmont shot 43 percent (22-for-51) from the field - including 9-for-25 from three-point distance. The Bruins outrebounded Mercer, 35-31, and overcame 17 turnovers and seven missed free throws.
Clark led three Bruins in double figures with 16 points. Hanlen scored 12 points, while Saunders had 10. Chamberlain scored a career-high nine points and Mann recorded a career-high 10 rebounds.
Cecil scored 17 points for Mercer (21-10, 13-5 Atlantic Sun).
The Bruins have won 11 consecutive games, and 17 consecutive February games dating back to 2010.
Belmont (24-7, 16-2 Atlantic Sun) returns to action Wednesday, Feb. 29 against Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun Tournament Quarterfinals.
Tip-off is set for 1:30 p.m. CT. The live play-by-play of Voice of the Bruins Kevin Ingram can be heard on the Bruin Sports Network. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN3.
For more information regarding Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament tickets, log on to www.atlanticsun.org.