|Mercer's Bud Thomas (5) came up big for the Bears on Friday.|
By DANIEL SHIRLEY
With the balanced scoring attack that is one of the keys for the Mercer Bears’ success this season, junior Bud Thomas can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.
He made sure that didn’t happen Friday night with a strong performance in the semifinals of the 2013 General Shale A-Sun Basketball Championships.
Thomas, who is the team’s fifth-leading scorer, finished with a game-high 20 points. His effort included several key plays down the stretch, as the Bears held off a determined USC Upstate squad for a 72-64 win at Hawkins Arena.
The Bears (23-10) will play either Florida Gulf Coast or Stetson in the championship game, and head coach Bob Hoffman knows his team wouldn’t get that chance without Thomas, who scored more than 15 points in a game just twice before Friday.
“He has fought through a lot of adversity, and he’s a special player,” said Hoffman, who fought back tears while describing Thomas. “Because of the way we play, he doesn’t get all the recognition that he should get because we play together. He should get awards and things like that. He gets more deflections and more steals than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“And they all go at him because they think they can get him, but they can’t get it done because he knows how to play the game at high level. His IQ is unbelievable.”
Thomas had many important plays Friday, but the biggest might have come with his team leading by six with less than a minute to play. Thomas came up with a steal and broke away for a layup, was fouled and made the foul shot. That sequence gave the Bears a 68-59 lead and all but sealed the victory as the Mercer fans roared with their approval.
“When you make a good play, and you know that whole building erupts, you know that’s a special feeling,” Thomas said. “You kind of dream of that as a kid. Doing something to fire a whole lot of people up and seeing my teammates going crazy, it’s a great feeling. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to get the win, and that’s what’s most important.”
Thomas was 8-of-11 from the floor and hit 3-of-6 shots from 3-point range. He also had six rebounds, three assists and the one steal and several more key defensive plays.
His performance helped the Bears avoid a similar fate to last year when they lost at home to Florida Gulf Coast in the tournament semifinals.
“I wasn’t even thinking about (last year),” said Langston Hall, who also had a big game with 18 points, including five 3-pointers. “We just had to find a way to pull it out, and Bud made some great plays at the end.”
Travis Smith, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, finished with 15 points. It was Thomas, however, who seemed to come up with big play after big play. His head coach and fellow junior Hall weren’t surprised.
“I have the same mindset going into every game where I’m going to pick my spots, and I’m not going to shoot any bad shots,” Thomas said. “Any time I see the opportunity to make something happen, I’m going to do that. It just so happens that tonight a couple of things went my way, and I was fortunate to get some open looks and knock them down.
“It’s tough to hard ‘Lang’ and ‘Trav,’ and a lot of times the other teams key on them and lose sight of me, and I get some open looks. I’m not going to go out there and force plays. I’m not that kind of player.”
But he’s certainly a player Hoffman, Hall and the other Mercer players appreciate.