MACON, Ga. – In a game that will instantly go down as one of the best A-Sun Tournament games in conference history, the USC Upstate men's basketball team battled toe-to-toe with top-seeded Mercer and fell 72-64 at Hawkins Arena in the semifinals of the 2013 General Shale Atlantic Sun Championship.
The Spartans (16-17) and Bears (23-10) traded blows for 40 minutes as the lead changed hands 10 times and the score was deadlocked on 10 different occasions with Mercer coming out on top in the final minute to advance to the conference championship game.
"I'm proud of our kids, said USC Upstate Head Coach Eddie Payne. "I thought that we turned up our play here towards the end of the season like we all were hoping we'd play throughout the year, but we came up a little short today."
Trailing by six points early, Upstate caught fire and went on a stretch where it hit seven consecutive shots, five of which came from behind the arc as the Spartans seized control of the tempo and took a three-point lead on a three-pointer by Torrey Craig with 6:53 left in the half.
Mercer eventually fought back in the final minutes to take a 34-30 lead to intermission as the Spartans and Bears combined to connect on 17 first-half three-pointers and give the sold out crowd all the could hope for in the opening 20 minutes.
Upstate faced a quick seven-point deficit in the opening minutes of the second period, but the Spartans got a lift off the bench in the form of Mario Blessing who took an offensive foul and then scored seven of the next nine points to put the Spartans right back in front at 46-44 with 12:45 remaining.
The two teams traded the lead four times over the next seven minutes and Craig knotted the score one last time at 57-57 with a long three-pointer from the top of the key to silence the Mercer crowd.
The sold-out crowd had their chance to make an impact moments later when Mercer scored six unanswered points, capped by a jumper from Daniel Coursey with 1:25 left to give the Bears just enough cushion to pick up the win.
A pair of Adrian Rodgers free throws cut the deficit to four moments later, but Mercer connected on all seven of their free throws in the final minute to secure the eight-point victory.
"It hurts," said Rodgers. "It hurts really bad, coming in with the momentum that we had and playing hard, and playing a good game. Like Coach Payne said towards the end of the game, we just couldn't get any breaks."
Craig led all scorers with 20 points, while Ty Greene got off to a slow start but bounced back to score 14 points and grab five rebounds.
"Our game plan was to stop penetration," said Greene. "When people hit tough shots, sometimes you have to tip your cap to them and they hit 14 threes tonight."
While the Spartans struggled from the field to open the game, Rodgers picked up the slack, scoring the first five points of the game for Upstate to keep it close early.
"Ty and Torrey are the two scorers on the team, so they were really locked in on them," said Rodgers. "I just used my opportunities. If I drive the ball inside, I know they're not going to help, so I made some moves because they're a really good help defensive team."
The Spartans end the year having won their first A-Sun Tournament game in program history with all five starters returning for the 2013-14 season. Rob Elam is the lone graduate on the team, finishing his career having played 30 games this season.