Despite being out-rebounded 46-21, the Tigers had a chance for the tie or regain the lead down 76-74 with less than 10 seconds remaining. Quantez Robertson drove to the basket, was tied up by defenders and the ball went out of bounds. The initial call was out of bounds to Auburn, but an official away from the ball overturned the call and ruled a charge on Robertson.
"We were clearing out the last play trying to get him to the rim," Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo explained. "One ref had the call to us out of bounds underneath. Another one overruled and called the charge."
Robertson added, "I just tried to do what Coach said. He said that if they miss one free throw and we're down two, just try to get to the bucket. I thought I had one-on-one and the man slid up under me. The referee called the charge.
"He called the call," Robertson said, "so it was a foul."
Mercer forward Calvin Henry hit a pair of free throws to end Auburn's chances.
In a game that saw 17 lead changes and 10 ties, Auburn forced 19 turnovers and had just seven themselves to keep the game close despite the lopsided rebounding numbers.
The Bears earned their second win over an SEC opponent in four days, beating Alabama 72-69 on Sunday. They out-rebounded Alabama 56-38 in that victory.
Guard James Florence, who had 23 against the Crimson Tide, topped that with 25 points against Auburn. Power forward Daniel Emerson was the leading rebounder for the Bears with 12 to go along with 12 points.
"I give Mercer credit," Lebo said after the loss. "They just annihilated us on the glass. We watched and watched and watched what they did to Alabama. That was the emphasis. They just destroyed us on the glass. The offensive glass, the defensive glass.
"They play strong," Lebo continued. "Daniel Emerson is as strong as a bull. One thing that they can do that we didn't do is rebound in traffic. We could not rebound the ball in traffic at all. Rebounding a lot of the time is a mentality, and not so much as skill."
"I thought Florence was terrific and he controlled the game," he added.
Mercer made 12-15 free throws in the final eight minutes while Auburn made just 2-8, including a pair of misses on the front end of one-and-ones. For the game the Bears were 26-34 and Auburn was 16-28 on free throws.
"We put them on the foul line way too much," Lebo commented. "Thirty-four times is way too much. When we got there we didn't convert. We were 6-14 in the second half from the foul line. That's frustrating that when we get there we can't even convert."
Frankie Sullivan, playing his first game after suffering a preseason ankle injury, scored seven points in 23 minutes of playing time.
The Tigers' final lead of the game was with just over five minutes remaining on a difficult three by Waller, ranging to his left on the wing. However, fighting leg cramps, Waller didn't score again.
While Auburn was missing too many of its free throws, the Bears made most of theirs and took a five-point lead with 1:18 remaining. Robertson and Barber got to the basket for lay-ins to cut it to one with 22 seconds to play.
With 11 seconds to play and leading 75-74, Daniel Kusnyer was left alone under the goal on an inbounds pass. However, he decided not to take the easy score and was quickly fouled on a play that only ran off 1.7 seconds. He missed the first foul shot and made the second, making it 76-74 when Robertson raced the length of the court and got called for the charge.
Auburn got 22 points from Tay Waller, including 6-13 on threes, and added five assists. Vot Barber added 17 points. DeWayne Reed scored 11 points, had five assists and zero turnovers.
Mercer, of the Atlantic Sun, improved to 3-0 on the season while the Tigers dropped to 1-1. Auburn's next game is at home on Saturday against George Washington at 1 p.m. CT