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Mercer set to battle East Carolina in Savannah Invitational

The Bears and Pirates will tip off at 5 p.m.

NCAA Basketball: Mercer at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Mercer (3-1) will open the Savannah Invitational Friday evening with a 5 p.m. tip-off against East Carolina (4-1).

The Bears enter the tournament fresh off a 58-47 win in Macon over Big South member Radford last Monday night, while ECU handed MEAC member Florida A&M an 82-62 defeat in Greenville, N.C., last Tuesday evening.

The Pirates, out of the American Athletic Conference, are under the direction of head coach Jeff Lebo, who is entering his seventh season. Lebo, a former coach in the Southern Conference at Chattanooga (2001-03), picked up his 103rd win at ECU on Tuesday, making him the winningest coach in the program’s Division I era (1965-present).

The game between the Bears and Pirates will mark the fifth all-time meeting between the two programs, with the series tied at two. Their last meeting came in 1978, a 92-75 win for the Bears.

Head coach Bob Hoffman is now in his ninth season as the head coach at Mercer and has built a program that appears to be a lasting one in terms of its perennial competitiveness for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Bears came into the season having won 19 or more games each of the previous three campaigns.

Along with the win over Radford on Monday night, Hoffman’s Bears have also taken down Georgia Southern (80-67) and Brewton-Parker (87-52), with the lone setback of the season coming at Florida (76-54).

Meanwhile, ECU enters with wins over Grambling State (72-57), North Carolina A&T (61-51), and Stetson (73-50). The Pirates’ lone loss of the season came on the road at Charlotte (76-54) last week.

WHO TO WATCH (East Carolina): The Pirates return three starters off a team that finished 12-20 last season: small forward Kentrell Barkley (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), 6-7 guard Caleb White (18.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and guard B.J. Tyson (13.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

White, a senior guard, is leading the Pirates so far this season, as he enters the contest averaging 18.8 ppg. White has bested the 20-point plateau three times in the team’s four games this season.

White is the top perimeter threat for ECU, as he comes into Friday night’s clash with the Bears having connected on 16 of 29 shots from beyond the arc this season. He is a blistering 11-for-29 from three-point range in the first two games of this tournament.

Tyson comes off a season-high 17-point performance against Florida A&M and has scored in double figures in every game he has played in this season.

WHO TO WATCH (Mercer): The Bears are led by one of the most dynamic newcomers in the Southern Conference this season, guard Ria’n Holland (19.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg), who currently ranks third in the league in scoring.

Holland transferred to Mercer from Indian Hills Community College — the same college that produced SoCon legend and 1997 NBA lottery pick Johnny Taylor.

Holland also played for one season under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State before transferring to Indian Hills last year. In his first game for the Bears against Brewton-Parker, Holland scored 24 points, including 5-11 from three-point land. Holland also posted 21 points against Florida.

Another player that has stepped up for the Bears is 6’8 junior guard Demetre Rivers (12.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Rivers has posted double-figure scoring games in three out of four games this season for the Bears, including a season-high 18 points against Brewton-Parker.

Then there’s preseason All-SoCon pick and junior forward Stephon Jelks (8.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg). Jelks, who has four career 20-point scoring games, has yet to have that breakout game this season. The 6’6 forward is versatile, in that he can score in a variety of different ways, including from three.

Jelks is also excellent on the boards, with four career 15-plus-rebound contest. In 13-career games, he has posted double figures in rebounds and has posted 10-career double-doubles. He has scored in double figures twice this season, most recently a 15-point effort against Georgia Southern.

Jelks is just 2-9 from three-point range this season after leading the Bears from three last season.

Who Wins: Mercer 78, East Carolina 74