FORT MYERS, Fla. - A heavyweight battle of the Atlantic Sun's two best men's basketball teams lived up to its billing on Thursday night as Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast battled for 40 minutes at Alico Arena. In the end, it was the Eagles who escaped with a 60-57 victory.
Mercer saw its eight-game winning streak snapped and fell to 20-10 (13-4 A-Sun) while Florida Gulf Coast kept its Atlantic Sun regular season title hopes alive and improved to 20-10 (12-5 A-Sun). Mercer will have to wait until Saturday to play for the outright A-Sun regular season championship, as the Bears came into the week needing just one win to secure the title.
Mercer junior center Daniel Coursey booked his first career double-double in the loss with 14 points and 10 rebounds. His 14 points tied senior Travis Smith for the team lead.
After trailing by as many as eight in the first half, Mercer battled back to take a brief lead before going into halftime behind 27-25. Mercer junior Jakob Gollon opened second period with two free throws, tying the game at 27 and setting the stage for a wild finish.
Opening 10 minutes of the second half was a frenzy of action featuring six tie scores and two lead changes. Ultimately, it was the Eagles who gained some traction, using an 8-0 run to take a 49-41 lead with 6:47 to play.
The Bears just wouldn't say die, however, returning fire with a 9-2 charge to get back within a single point. With 2:29 remaining, the Bears trailed 54-50 when Hall sparked a 7-0 Mercer run to give the visitors a 57-54 lead with 65 seconds left.
FGCU sophomore Bernard Thompson was fouled on a three-pointer and hit two free throws, giving Mercer back possession up 57-56 with 44 seconds left. Mercer worked the ball around and when a shot went up, Gollon was there for what appeared to be an offensive rebound.
Gollon struggled for control with FGCU sophomore Eric McKnight and was called for a foul with 18 seconds left. The whistle incensed the nearby Mercer bench and sent McKnight to the other end for free throws. McKnight banked home the first and hit the second to position the Eagles in front, 58-57.
Mercer couldn't score on the ensuing possession and was forced to foul after FGCU retained possession. A pair of free throws for Christophe Varidel put Mercer down three and Thomas' desperation heave at the buzzer hit the iron twice, but wouldn't go down.
All told, the second half featured seven tie scores and four lead changes. Mercer outshot FGCU 43.5% (20-of-46) to 40.8% (20-of-29), but the Eagles benefitted from a 22-13 advantage in free throw attempts. Ten of Mercer's 11 players who entered the game scored a point. Langston Hall finished with nine points and four assists while Gollon totaled six points, an assist and a rebound.
The Bears can capture the No. 1 seed in next week's Atlantic Sun tournament with a win at Stetson on Saturday. Game time at Edmunds arena is scheduled for 3:15 p.m.