Dressed in boots and fatigues, hundreds of Citadel cadets were ready to roar if given a reason to Saturday at McAlister Field House.
Try as they might, the Bulldogs couldn't quite give them one.
Down by 16 points in the first half, The Citadel fought back for two chances to tie Mercer in the final minutes.
But 3-point shots from freshmen Leandro Allende and Preston Parks bounced off the rim, and the Bears survived for an 89-78 win before 3,809 fans, the second-largest crowd at McAlister Field House this season.
“We just need to get one of those to fall,” said Parks, who led the Bulldogs with 24 points and nine assists. “But we're going to keep our heads up and keep fighting.”
The Citadel's 10th straight loss followed a familiar script – a large early deficit and a furious rally that came up short. The Bulldogs are now 9-19 overall and 2-13 in the Southern Conference with just three regular season games left, two of them at home.
“I'm proud of how the guys battled and kept battling,” said Bulldogs coach Duggar Baucom. “Mercer is good, and their record is not indicative of how good they are. We played through some stuff, and I was proud of how they competed.”
Mercer (13-15, 7-8) has experience, starting five juniors, and size, with 6-8 junior Demetre Rivers (14 points) from Stratford High School playing guard. The Bears also have one of the top newcomers in the SoCon in junior college transfer Ria'n Holland, a 6-0 guard who lit up the Bulldogs for 32 points.
With freshman Kaelon Harris out with a broken foot and freshman guard Frankie Johnson hampered by a bad shoulder, the Bulldogs played a lot of zone defense in the first half.
Mercer shredded it for a 50-36 lead at the break, shooting 57 percent with just three turnovers.
In the second half, the Bulldogs pressed more and Baucom threw some junk defenses at Holland. The Citadel whittled the lead down to 79-76 with 3:41 left on a 3-pointer by sophomore Zane Najdawi, who had 17 points and seven rebounds.
Allende got a look from the right wing after a Mercer miss, but couldn't knock down his 3-point try. And after Holland missed in the lane, the Bulldogs got another chance to tie. This time, Parks might have forced his 3-pointer a little early, and it also missed.
“There comes a time at the end of the game when you've got to make those plays,” Baucom said. “It seems like we've been on the short side of that. It's getting redundant, but multiple times when you have to have that shot to tie or take the lead, we haven't made that play.
“But our guys are young, and they are going to make plenty of plays like that in the future. I'm looking forward to that.”
Mercer pushed the lead back to 83-76 on buckets by 6-9 Desmond Ringer (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Holland before a strange sequence ended any Citadel hopes.
Parks earned what looked like a two-shot foul with 48 seconds left, as the referee waited to see if Parks' shot attempt in the lane would fall before calling a blocking foul on Mercer's Stephon Jelks.
Parks missed the first free throw, and Mercer rebounded the ball as if it was a one-and-one situation. Baucom was hit with a technical foul as he protested; Holland made the resulting free throws with 39 seconds left, and then Ringer was fouled and hit two more three throws for a four-point possession and an 87-76 lead.
Mercer made 18 of 21 free throws to 4 of 5 for The Citadel, which got 12 points from sophomore Matt Frierson. Freshman Tyler Burgess made three 3-pointers as the Bulldogs shot 16 of 43 from long distance.
The Citadel hosts Western Carolina on Wednesday in their second-to-last home game of the season.