A season ago, when La Salle and Mercer met for the first time, the Explorers and Bears had a memorable opening date.

It took three overtimes, but La Salle came away with a two-point victory in Macon, Ga.

The teams had so much fun, they decided to get together again on Sunday at 20th and Olney.

Actually, the return game at Tom Gola Arena was already scheduled before last year's thriller.

This time, La Salle had to overcome a different kind of drama. Cruising to what seemed like a comfortable win, the Explorers lost senior forward B.J. Johnson to an ankle injury with 10 ½ minutes remaining.

Johnson had scored 25 with eight rebounds and two blocks when he went down. Without its leading scorer and rebounder, La Salle went into survival mode.

The Explorers saw Mercer make a run at things, but still did what was necessary to post a 95-85 victory.

"We lost a good defensive rebounder. We lost a bit of size," La Salle coach John Giannini said of Johnson's injury. "[Mercer] took advantage of it.

"It put a lot of pressure on us to hang on, and that's not bad experience before January. It probably makes your team a little better to have to make some big free throws, to not turn it over against the press than to just coast into a win."

Giannini did not offer any update on Johnson other than to say his ankle was injured.

"If he is out, then we'll have to play without him," Giannini said. "Other guys will have to step up, but we won't change how we play."

Mercer (6-5), which trailed by 17 when Johnson got hurt, made a run and got to within 74-66 with about eight minutes remaining.

Still, fighting back from a huge deficit can be draining, and once the Explorers (6-6) regrouped to push the advantage back to double digits, the Bears did not have enough to complete the comeback.

Pookie Powell scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half, including a stretch of nine straight after Johnson left the game.

"Obviously, when B.J. went down, it hurt us," Powell said. "I just told the team to stay poised because we still have the lead. Take smart shots and play our basketball.

"Coming from the second team leader — B.J. is our first — I just told our guys to stick together and we're going to win this game."

Last season, this matchup featured 16 lead changes and 11 ties. This time, the Explorers trailed, 9-8, then Isaiah Deas drained a three-pointer with 12:56 left before the break. La Salle took control of play and never trailed again.