David Craig was not going to let a lackluster first half get him down.
Instead, McCallie's standout center stepped up and played a crucial role on both ends of the court while helping the Blue Tornado pull away in the second half to a 55-46 home victory over archrival Baylor on Friday night.
"I was very frustrated with the two fouls I picked up in the first quarter," said the 7-foot-1 Craig, who signed with Mercer in November. "What I told myself going into the half is I am not going to have another opportunity to do this, so I am just going to leave everything out there. I put my head down, pinned my ears back and fought through adversity like I have all my life."
Craig's response included three powerful two-handed dunks to go with a key assist to Kollin Claridy for a 3-pointer, and he also swatted two shots off the backboard — all in the second half.
Milos Stijepovic brought his European flair to the court as well to lead the Blue Tornado (18-1, 1-0 Division II-AA East Region), whose lockdown defense this season has allowed 50 or more points in only three games.
The 6-foot-6, left-handed shooting guard was a force off the pick-and-roll driving to the basket, and he hit two first-half 3-pointers to help McCallie fight back from an early 9-4 deficit. Stijepovic scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half to help McCallie lead 24-22 at the break.
Junior Kollin Claridy made his presence felt in the rivalry victory as he led all with 21 points and put on a clinic from the foul line, where he made 10 of 13 free throws. He also threw down a dunk on the left baseline off a nice find from Stijepovic.
Claridy's 3-pointer from the top of the arc gave the Blue Tornado a huge jolt for a 39-30 lead with 1:30 left in the third quarter. He scored 10 straight points, including a putback basket and five consecutive made free throws to build McCallie's lead to double digits early in the fourth quarter.
"I have been working out with my dad a lot and working on free throws, ball handling and dribbling as well," Claridy said. "I am focused on the little things. We came out here focused on playing great defense first and let the game come to us offensively."
Baylor cut its deficit to 51-46 late, but the visitors had one of their last shot opportunities swatted away by Craig.
The Red Raiders (13-5, 1-1) were led by Zane Restelli's 16 points as the freshman scored nine in the first quarter. Eli Sparkman and Nyziah Whaley added 10 points for Baylor, which was missing 6-foot-6 forward Al Peciulis, a senior and a key player who is out due to injury.
McCallie coach David Conrady was pleased with how his players handled their first region test.
"Our team really trusts each other and is unselfish," Conrady said. "Tonight Kollin stepped up and made some big shots. Milos really put the ball on the floor and finished, and his scoring ability helped bring attention to him to open up David. At halftime we needed David to be more active, and he did exactly that."