MACON, Ga. - The Stetson men's basketball team (3-9, 0-1) dropped its Atlantic Sun Conference opener at Mercer (8-6, 1-0) by a score of 70-64 on Monday night in Macon. Senior Joel Naburgs and junior Aaron Graham led the Hatters with 18 points and 17 points, respectively.
"They're a good team," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said of Mercer following the game. "They've accomplished a lot with this group of guys that they have right now, and their expectations are to win. They maintained that expectation for more of the 40 minutes than we did.
"I do think our guys played hard," Alexander continued. "I think our guys tried to do what we're asking them to do, which is always the first place to start. I was pleased with their effort. This is a tough team to prepare for, a tough team to guard, and a tough team to score against, so we knew it was going to be a grind."
It was certainly a grind, but both teams made it look a bit easier, opening the game with a barrage of three-pointers. Stetson held a 12-11 lead through eight and a half minutes and only one two-point basket had been recorded between the two squads. The Hatters knocked down four threes, a trio of which came from Graham, and the Bears had three triples during the stretch.
Similar to most of Mercer's games this season, neither team was all that successful offensively in the first half. The Hatters shot just 33.3 percent from the floor, while the Bears were slightly better, at 34.4 percent. Stetson was aided by 5-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc, which made up for the team's 11 first half turnovers.
Stetson led by as many as five in the period, but four straight points to end the frame gave Mercer a 28-26 advantage at the break. The Bears were led by Travis Smith, who totaled 10 points in the half, and six total steals that led to six points off of turnovers. Graham's 14 first half points kept the Hatters alive with 20 minutes to play.
After a three by Mercer's Travis Smith opened the second half, Stetson used an 8-2 run to take the lead, at 34-33, with 17:51 to play. Five points from Naburgs, and a triple by senior Adam Pegg gave the Hatters their first lead of the period. The Bears countered with another three by Smith as the two teams jockeyed for position in the final frame.
Over 10 minutes later, the Bears finally extended their lead to six points, 53-47, but another trey by Naburgs and a score in post by Pegg made it just a one-point game with 5:26 to play. A quick eight-point run by Mercer, which included another three by Smith, gave the Bears a healthy nine-point advantage. Stetson never got closer than six the rest of the game, as Mercer went on to take the 70-64 victory.
"It just didn't happen," Alexander said of Stetson's inability to take the lead late. "The thing you have to remember is that it's not going to happen for a lot of teams that come in here. That doesn't make it okay, it's just the reality of playing a good team on their floor."
Mercer's Smith finished with a career-best 25 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the floor, and 5-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc. The Bears shot just 38.8 percent from the floor, but benefited from 15 offensive rebounds and 16 forced turnovers.
Stetson shot 40.8 percent from the floor and 41.7 from three-point range, which included eight combined triples from Naburgs and Graham. The two Hatter guards led the way with 18 points and 17 points, respectively, while junior Chris Perez added 13 and Pegg chipped in with 11.
"It was great to see those guys, together, have a nice game and make some shots," Alexander said of Naburgs and Graham. "They played with much more confidence, shot it with much more confidence, which we have to have if we're going to be any good at all offensively."
Both players moved up the Stetson all-time leaderboard with their performances on Monday. Naburgs increased his career total to 145 three-pointers and moved into fourth place in Stetson history for threes made. Graham, meanwhile, now has 127 career triples, which is good enough for a tie for eighth all-time at Stetson.
Naburgs and junior Willie Green led Stetson with six rebounds each. The latter added a game high three blocks, the third time in his career he has achieved the feat. Green also continued to climb the Stetson record books on Monday, improving his total blocked shots to 52, moving into ninth place all-time in career blocks.
Stetson will conclude its five-game road trip on Wednesday when the team takes on Kennesaw State. The Hatters and the Owls are scheduled to tip off at 5:00 p.m. with coverage on ASun.TV, HatterVision, and the Hatter Radio Network.