The Stetson men's basketball team (14-15, 11-7) dropped its final game of the regular season on Saturday, falling to Mercer (21-10, 14-4) by a score of 77-65 on Saturday afternoon. Even in the loss, the Hatters remained the third seed in next week's Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, the first league championship for Stetson men's basketball since 2008-09.
"The better team won," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said after the game. "I think that's clear to everybody who watched it. They're really solid. Over the course of 18 games, they've proven that they're better than everybody else for the long haul. Tonight's 40 minute game was the same way.
"We had our moments, we got off to a great start, we answered their run right before halftime, but over the course of 40 minutes they just played better than we did," Alexander continued. "We don't have a chance to win unless we play well and with great energy. It wasn't bad, but it has to be over the top if you're going to beat a team that good."
After a slow start for both teams, a three by senior Joel Naburgs ignited a 9-0 run that ended with a back door play from junior Hunter Miller to junior Willie Green to give the Hatters a 17-10 lead with 9:10 to play in the first half.
An 18-1 run by the Bears gave Mercer a double digit lead, at 28-18, for the first time. However, two straight threes by junior Aaron Graham, and a runner by junior Chris Perez, gave Stetson eight points in a row to cut the deficit to two points, at 28-26, just before halftime.
Mercer went into the break with a 30-28 lead, and held it until a three by Miller gave Stetson a 33-32 advantage early in the second half. A 9-1 run gave the Bears a double digit lead once again, but it was another 12 straight points late in the game that gave Mercer a 69-52 advantage that put the game out of reach for the Hatters.
After one of the best shooting nights of the season against Kennesaw State on Thursday, Stetson shot just 38.5 percent from the floor, and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc on Saturday. The Hatters, who came into today's game 10th in the nation in assists, recorded just 11 against the Bears.
Naburgs led the Hatters with 14 points, while Graham and senior Adam Pegg added 12 points in the defeat. Green and Miller chipped in with eight points each. Green also recorded team highs of six rebounds and three blocks.
Mercer put five players in double figures in a balanced attack. Travis Smith scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and handed out four assists. Langston Hall led the Bears with nine assists while scoring 12 points.
Stetson, now 14-15 on the season and 11-7 in Atlantic Sun Conference play, has its most victories and conference wins since the 2007-08 season. The Hatters will be the three seed in next week's A-Sun Championship. It marks the first time Stetson has advanced to the conference tournament since 2008-09.
"Our body of work, especially in conference play, which is where we should be measured, it makes me really proud of this team," Alexander said of Stetson's achievements this season. "I'm proud of them for a lot of reasons. For this group of guys, and where this program has been the last few years - last year included - to be sitting here with a solid three seed, and I think the respect of everybody in the league, it's a great first step to get us where we want to go."
The Hatters will play on Thursday in Macon against either Lipscomb or ETSU in the A-Sun Quarterfinals. Thursday's games can be watched on ESPN3, or listened to on the Hatters Radio Network.
UPDATE: No. 3 Stetson will play No. 6 ETSU on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at Hawkins Arena in Macon, Ga.