For a team typically reliant on three-pointers, it seemed unusual the Belmont Bruins had to win their game against the Mercer Bears from the free throw line.
In the closest men’s home game since November 2010, the Bruins escaped the Curb Event Center with an 82-78 win Saturday evening against the Bears.
After a tense second half with a combined 31 fouls and 42 free throws, the Bruins’ free throws ended up sealing the game for Belmont, even though it kept the game close. The team was on 69 percent from the free throw line in the second half.
“You always like for it to be better,” said head coach Rick Byrd. “It was more what I thought we did do well in the last three or four minutes is we made some nice stops when they had big possessions.”
Junior Kerron Johnson led the way for the Bruins with 25 points, 16 of them free throws.
While the Bruins never trailed in the second half, they never extended their lead to beyond five except for an early second-half run.
“They jumped on us early… and then all of a sudden it’s anybody’s game. And they’re really a good team, and I’m not sure they’re really better than we are. So it’s two teams battling for it, and I give them a lot of credit,” Byrd said.
The Bears opened the half on an 13-7 run, led by Bud Thomas and Langston Hall. Mercer then quickly rallied to make it a two-point game with more than eleven minutes to go after three-pointers by Kevin Cavalari and Hall, and tied it after two free throws from Justin Cecil.
While Mercer never took the lead, Belmont never got a lead more than three points until less than six minutes remained in the game. While multiple Mercer fouls and turnovers gave allowed Belmont to extend their lead to seven, the Bears fought back and narrowed the Belmont lead to three points with 1:20 left in the game.
The scored stayed that way until an off-the-ball foul on Daniel Coursey, who had points in the game for Mercer. Hedgepeth nailed one of his two free throws, then getting a rebound that led to another Johnson free throws. Exchanged foul shots from both sides cut the Bruin lead to two, but two Drew Hanlen foul shots put the game away for Belmont.
The Bruins led 44-33 at halftime after a 15-2 run after trailing early in the half. Belmont made 40 percent of their three-pointers in the half, and then forced six of their eleven turnovers in the first 20 minutes. The Bears eventually cut their deficit to five, but Belmont then went on an 16-10 run to close the half.
Guard Langston Hall led the Bears with 23 points and four rebounds.
The Bruins, now 5-2 on the season, will play Tennessee State at home Tuesday night.