SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The USC Upstate men's basketball team (9-8, 3-2 Atlantic Sun) trimmed a 17-point halftime deficit all the way down to three with 1:16 to play; however, Mercer (12-7, 4-2) sank all eight of its free throws in the final 46 seconds to claim a 73-66 victory Monday night inside the Hodge Center.
Mercer and Upstate were deadlocked at 31 at intermission, but the Bears opened the second half on a 14-1 run to take a 45-32 lead with 14:17 to play in the contest. Mercer continued to build its lead, taking its largest of the contest, 17 (53-36) with 11:09 to play on a lay-up by Bud Thomas.
With Mercer leading 55-42 with less than nine minutes to play, Shane Porchea (Decatur, Ga.) cut through the Bear defense and converted his lay-up to spark an 8-1 Spartan run. Torrey Craig (Great Falls, S.C.), Ricardo Glenn (Augusta, Ga.) and Ty Greene (Knoxville, Tenn.) also hit lay-ups during the spurt that trimmed the Mercer lead to six (56-50) with 5:26 to play.
Mercer increased its lead to double-figures (63-53) when Jakob Gollon scored with 3:57 remaining on the clock.
The Spartans had one final run in the tank over the final minutes of the contest. Jodd Maxey (Statham, Ga.) started the Upstate comeback on a put-back attempt with 3:47 to play.
After a tip-in by Glenn trimmed the deficit to six (63-57), Adrian Rodgers (Alpharetta, Ga.) jumped on a loose ball and the Spartans quickly took a timeout to maintain possession. Following the 30-second timeout, Craig drove through the lane and trimmed the lead to four, 63-59, with 2:57 to play.
After Mercer sank a pair of free throws with 2:53 to play, Upstate again trimmed the lead to four, when Rodgers connected on a jumper along the baseline with 2:23 to play.
Craig missed a pair of three-point attempts (1:35 remaining; 1:20) before Maxey sank one of two free throws as Upstate drew within three (65-62) with 1:16 to play. The Spartans failed to get any closer down the stretch as Mercer was a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe in the final 48 seconds en route to a the seven-point victory.
"It appeared that we are not quite there mentally as it relates to winning ballgames," said head coach Eddie Payne. "We were playing a very good team tonight and I felt we came out a little flat to start the second half. We didn't have the competitive edge during Mercer's run to open the half. We got it back and put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win, but we didn't make our free throws. Tonight was a great lesson on what it takes to win tough basketball games."
Despite out-rebounding Mercer (35-32) as well as owning the advantage in second-chance points (18-8) and points in the paint (38-26), a 52.0% effort at the free throw line proved costly for the Spartans. Upstate hit just 13 of its 25 free throw attempts in the contest, while Mercer hit 20-of-25 (80.0%).
Craig led Upstate with 17 points and tied a game-high with seven rebounds. Glenn, who also grabbed seven rebounds, pitched in 16 points on a 7-for-10 effort, while Maxey reached double figures with 11.
Justin Cecil paced Mercer with 26 points as he connected on 9-of-14 attempts including a 5-for-8 effort from beyond the arc. Cecil was also a perfect 3-for-3 at the charity stripe. Jakob Gollon was the only other Bear to reach double figures as he tallied 10 points.
Upstate will return to action this weekend as they head to the River City, Jacksonville, Fla., to face a pair of A-Sun foes (North Florida, Sat., 7 p.m.; Jacksonville, Mon., 7 p.m.).