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Mercer 62 Manor 58.

Postgame audio - Coach Howie Levy:

Mercer County Community College pushed the start of Tuesday night's game against Manor back an hour so head coach Howie Levy could go see his son Lior suit up for Princeton High School versus Notre Dame. Levy then rushed across the county to suffer a different class of agony than the pain created by helplessly watching your child play a sport. Switching from the stands to the sidelines, Levy saw his MCCC squad fall behind early in the first half after taking an immediate 5-0 lead and struggle to catch the visiting Blue Jays.

Knowing that Mercer had raced past Manor on the road 99-80 a month previous, it was difficult to witness the Vikings struggle against a rangy, lateral zone. Center Filip Sekulic was unable to get many touches moving from block to block behind the defense and 5'4" guard Larry Webster's constant raining of three point shots off the bench from in front of the zone routinely landed short.

Even removing Sekulic from the floor and picking up Manor full court didn't help as MCCC fell behind 19-11.

Mustafa El-Amin kept his team in the conversation with a slashing lefty layup but bad fortune struck Mercer as a steal deflected off a referee and back to Manor on a possession that concluded with an unobstructed layup.

A spinning, pivoting jumper by El-Amin had the Vikings within five at the break, 27-22.

"When you play a zone like that and you're not making shots, it tends to slow everything down," Levy acknowledged. "You start to not move so quickly, you sulk a little bit and the ball doesn't move fast enough. Your defense suffers, you're lacking in energy and it sort of compounds itself."

That aggravating aggregate continued into the second half. Manor's lead increased to 10 on a far side three before the play of Armando Davis gave Mercer a needed spark. Davis connected on a three pointer set up by some decent penetration of the zone and then slid in to take a charge on the other end.

With Manor up 44-35 the momentum began to change as Mercer made better decisions against the 2-3 defense. The bearded Andre Wilburn knocked down a three, then added two more by cutting to receive an inbounds path in rhythm.

Barry Brockington also overloaded the zone and drove left out of the paint to slim the deficit to one and finally with just over 8:00 remaining Wilburn made one of the nicest plays I've seen all year - reaching around the back of his man to rip a defensive rebound away from behind, turn and lay the steal home for a one point Mercer advantage.

What had been a game Manor was controlling saw lead changes on each of the next four possessions before the Blue Jays inched in front 52-49.

El-Amin promptly evened the score, crossing over at the top of the arc and connecting on an important three.

I don't have a play-by-play for the final four minutes, but Manor grabbed a near-impossible number of offensive rebounds, yet Mercer somehow survived almost every one. El-Amin made both sides of a one-and-one for a 56-54 advantage, was too strong on a lefty drive with his team up one but raced back to pick the pocket of a Blue Jay from behind.

Tyliek Kimbrough's steal and breakaway layup with just under a minute showing made it a three point game before both Webster and Kimbrough kept Manor at bay with four straight free throws, each pair coming with the lead down to two in the final :18.

Mercer improved to 16-6 with the victory, but Levy still sees progress that needs to happen.

"We're a good team but I don't feel yet that we've gelled to the extent that a couple of my teams have in the past where you get to the point where you know what you're going to see on the court," he observed.

Having already qualified for the Region XIX tournament on the basis of their record, Mercer has six regular season games remaining until then. 13 minutes of well-played second half basketball fighting from behind can be enough against a team that had lost 14 straight but it won't carry the Vikings very far in a postseason.

Or, as Levy put it "[when] the games get more important the teams try a lot harder, they guard you a lot harder and they care a lot more."

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