MACON, Ga. -- A dream start was too good for the East Tennessee State basketball team to handle.
The Bucs jumped out to a commanding 15-1 lead in the opening minutes, but couldn't maintain the momentum as Mercer earned a 73-63 victory Monday night at Hawkins Arena.
"I'm glad we jumped out quick, but we just didn't play well enough to win," ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. "I was thrilled we were up 15-1 to start. But we obviously knew we were on the road, playing a good team and we could feel them coming back."
The Bucs held Mercer scoreless for almost five minutes while scoring the first 10 points. The Bears, who missed their first five shots, finally scored 4:53 into the game when Monty Brown hit a free throw.
A minute later Rashawn Rembert hit a confident-looking 3-pointer and ETSU was up 15-1.
"We know we're capable of that," ETSU forward Hunter Harris said. "When we're on a run, we're on a run. We knew Mercer's a good team and it wasn't gonna be easy, but we had the confidence that we could come in here and beat them."
As any coach will tell you, that kind of early lead is the most dangerous advantage in basketball, and Mercer showed why over the next 10 minutes. The Bears outscored ETSU 29-8 and went up 30-23 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Jibri Bryan, who more than doubled his scoring average in just six minutes. Bryan came in averaging 4.3 points a game and finished with a season-high 16.
"I thought our subs came in and made huge contributions tonight," said Mercer coach Bob Hoffman, who had two starters go scoreless. "We had a lot of guys come off the bench and help us get the win over a very talented team."
Mercer (12-5 overall, 3-1 Atlantic Sun Conference) was clinging to a tenuous 53-51 lead with 7:45 left in the game before pulling away for its 20th victory in its last 21 regular-season A-Sun home games.
"At the end, we just didn't make a lot of winning plays," said A.J. Merriweather, who led the Bucs with 20 points and nine rebounds. "We didn't play very well offensively or defensively."
The Bucs fell to 8-7, 1-1 thanks, in part, to cold shooting. They made 39.7 percent of their shots and their regular "shooters" struggled. Rembert went 2 for 10, Jalen Riley was 2 for 8, Lester Wilson was 1 for 6 and Kinard Gadsden-Gilliard was 2 for 7.
"To win on the road, everything has to go right," Bartow said. "You're obviously very reliant on your key guys and when they're not making shots, it just puts a lot of stress on your team.
"I thought Hunter played a great second half and A.J. gave us all he had other than the missed free throws."
Merriweather finished the two-game road trip with 39 points and 19 rebounds. His only blemish was missing five free throws against Mercer. Harris made 7 of 10 shots and scored 14 points.
The Bears were up 37-29 at halftime thanks to a 5-for-9 performance from 3-point range.
ETSU withstood a continued Mercer 3-point barrage as Langston Hall made two and then was fouled on another and swished all three free throws. That put the Bears up 48-33, but Merriweather scored six straight to fuel an 11-0 run that got the Bucs back in business.
Harris and Merriweather combined to score the Bucs' first 17 points of the second half.
Rembert connected on a long 3-point shot from the right wing to cut Mercer's lead to 53-51 with 7:45 left.
Five seconds later, Harris, who had made his first seven shots, picked up his fourth foul and Mercer scored five straight to begin to pull away again.
Hall led the Bears with 19 points, going 10 for 10 from the foul line.
The Bucs play host to Lipscomb on Thursday night. Seven of their next nine games are at home.