Hendrix too much for Mercer to duplicate USC upset
MACON, Ga. -- The scene was set for another Atlantic Sun stunner.
Mercer was sky-high after an improbable 96-81 victory at then-No. 18 Southern California on Saturday. The biggest win in the program's long history created headlines nationally and produced excitement at home.
With Alabama coming to town on Tuesday night, more than 3,200 fans packed University Center, the first sellout at the four-year-old arena. Students and fans tailgated on campus and lined up outside the doors to the arena, which opened an hour before tip-off.
They just beat the No. 18 team in the country by 15 points on the road. I don't care what it says on the front of their jerseys. That's impressive for anybody.
The school's string symphony performed the national anthem, and the Little League World Series champions from nearby Warner Robins, Ga., were honored at halftime. NBA scouts occupied several seats at the scorer's table and media row was packed.
Fans anticipated another upset for the once-woebegone conference that already has produced upsets of Kentucky, Cincinnati and USC during the first week of the season.
And the Bears, who had finished 13-17 last season and were picked to finish fifth in the A-Sun by media this season, were brimming with confidence. Beating a USC team chock-full of former McDonald's All-Americans, including sensational freshman O.J. Mayo, tends to do that to a middling mid-major.
"We want to get to the NCAA tournament," said Mercer guard James Florence, who nearly matched Mayo's 32 points with 30 points of his own in Los Angeles last weekend. "But after we beat USC, we saw where we were getting votes in the Top 25. Our expectations kind of changed."
Alabama doesn't have a guard as talented as Mayo. The Crimson Tide had one of the country's best point guards, but senior Ronald Steele is redshirting this season while recovering from surgeries on both knees.
But what Alabama does have is what a lot of teams like Mercer rarely have: a dominating inside player.
Mercer had no answer for Alabama's 6-foot-8, 265-pound forward Richard Hendrix, who scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the Crimson Tide's 90-83 victory. Every time the Bears inched closer, Alabama looked for Hendrix, who made 11 of 15 shots from the floor.
"We don't see guys like that with that kind of size in our league," Mercer forward Brian Pfohl said. "If we do see guys with that kind of size, they don't have those kind of skills. He was a McDonald's All-American, and we knew he was going to be tough to stop."
When Hendrix went to the bench for rest early in the second half, Mercer used a 13-4 run to cut its deficit to 55-52 on Florence's layup with 13 minutes, 23 seconds to play. Hendrix was sitting at the scorer's table waiting to return to the floor, and Alabama coach Mark Gottfried called timeout to get him back into the game. Hendrix scored on an easy dunk on the next possession, and the Bears trailed by 10 points again less than three minutes later.
"We just didn't have an answer for him," Mercer coach Mark Slonaker said. "He's a load. We don't face guys like that at our level."
There aren't many guys like Hendrix in college basketball. With Steele sidelined, and the Tide still searching for his replacement, Hendrix has carried a big load so far. He scored 22 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in an 84-72 win over Troy in last week's opener.
"I just like to go out and play hard," Hendrix said. "If I get the ball, I feel like I've got to do something with it. It's not always scoring."
Hendrix did everything against the Bears. Mercer tried to counter with Pfohl, a 6-7, 230-pound senior from Atlanta. Pfohl scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds, but he was no match for Hendrix physically. Pfohl usually plays power forward. His roommate, Sam Dolan, usually plays in the paint but hasn't played yet this season because of a back injury.
Pfohl's father is former pro wrestler Lex Lugar, who was once known as the "Total Package." That moniker was an apt description for Hendrix on Tuesday night. In fact, Pfohl's best defense might have been using one of his father's old tactics: hitting Hendrix over the head with a metal chair.
"They were looking for him every time," Pfohl said. "I'd try to front him, and they'd kick out to the wing and throw it to him. It's tough to get around him a second time."
The night was still a success for Mercer, which had never hosted an opponent the caliber of Alabama in its new $40 million multi-purpose arena. The Bears have played plenty of opponents like the Crimson Tide -- they lost at Wisconsin and Oregon last season and play at Boston College and Auburn later this season. But bigger opponents have always been reluctant to play Mercer on its floor.
"That's our world," Slonaker said. "We know we have to do this. I'm a veteran at doing it now."
Slonaker has to play enough road games against bigger opponents to secure $200,000 in guaranteed payments to help keep Mercer athletics afloat. He convinced the Tide to play on his court by swapping two road games for one home game. Instead of asking for a guaranteed payment, Slonaker took less money to fill seats in his own gym.
"It's a tough thing at a high academic school to get students to give up that study time and get into school spirit," Slonaker said. "It's a struggle for private schools in the South because it's a football culture. These kids went to football games in high school."
The packed gym was a nice change for Mercer players like Pfohl, who endured many games when the building was half-empty.
"It's been unbelievable," Pfohl said. "I can't describe it. I've been here for four years, and I can't tell you what it's like. Sometimes, there was hardly anybody in here."
Attention is something new for Mercer, too. The Bears haven't played in the NCAA tournament since 1985, when Sam Mitchell nearly led them to an upset of Georgia Tech in the first round. Mitchell played 13 years in the NBA and is now coach of the Toronto Raptors.
Mercer won the Atlantic Sun regular-season championship for the first time in 2002-03, but was upset by Central Florida in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Other highlights have been few and far between.
Even though the Bears came up on the wrong end of the score against Alabama, they made quite an impression.
"They're good," Gottfried said. "Let's not forget -- they are what they are. They just beat the No. 18 team in the country by 15 points on the road. I don't care what it says on the front of their jerseys. That's impressive for anybody."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.