American guard Derrick Mercer had a rough day against Army in the Patriot League semifinals.
He finished 1-for-5 with four points - his worst scoring output of the season. But heading into Friday's conference title game against Holy Cross, Mercer has a theory about his recent performance.
"I definitely feel like I owe my teammates a game," he said. "So when Friday comes, I'm gonna go out there and play the best game I can."
That would be a welcome element for the Eagles (23-7), who have a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament at stake - because Mercer's best game has carried them before.
The Patriot League's player of the year doesn't stand out statistically or with flashy play. Instead, his goals have been to become more assertive offensively and to take some heat off leading scorer Garrison Carr.
Mercer has helped AU build a 12-game winning streak; he has averaged 13.2 points and shot 47.9 percent during the surge.
"He's always been a tremendous defensive player. He's always been a guy that was the assist man," coach Jeff Jones said. "But kind of the completion, the rounding out of his game, was being able to be more assertive as a scorer. And that just complements everything else that he does out on the court for us."
What Mercer does is just that: a little bit of everything. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior isn't the most physically imposing presence. And he isn't the Eagles' best pure scorer. That's where Carr comes in.
And Mercer has a role there, too. Carr is ranked 11th in the nation in 3-point field goals and excels when spotting up in open space. Mercer understands it's up to him to provide that space - whether it means making a smart pass or forcing opponents to divert attention away from Carr.
"I definitely try to be more aggressive, try to get teams to respect me as an offensive player," Mercer said. "That's what me and [fellow senior] Brian Gilmore are trying to do - just to be more aggressive so the load on Garrison can be less."
Mercer has scored in double digits 22 times this season - and for 11 of 12 games during the winning streak. But even when he struggles to score, Mercer is far from a weak link. Perhaps his most important role is as a calming influence.
"He makes us go," Jones said. "Our offense might be designed to get other guys shots, but Derrick is the one that manages and runs that offense in order to get other people shots. And when things break down, a majority of the time Derrick is the guy that has to make something out of nothing."
Added Carr: "With him on the court being able to do that, it just makes everyone else's job that much easier. We know if the shot clock is low and Derrick has the ball in his hands, he has the touch to make a great play every time."
Mercer expects to deliver on his teammates' expectations Friday. After all, he feels like he owes them one.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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