The Mercer Bears entered Sunday’s Atlantic Sun championship game with a few things on their mind: revenge against opponent Florida Gulf Coast, an automatic NCAA tournament bid and taking their ball home with them when they leave.
All missions were accomplished. Led by a smothering first-half defense, the Bears exploded to a 33-17 halftime lead and held off a fast-charging Eagles‘ offense in the second half to earn a 68-60 victory. The win punched Mercer’s ticket to the NCAA tournament, marking their first appearance in the Big Dance since 1985, when they lost to Georgia Tech in the first round.
Although the season isn’t quite over, several important accomplishments have already been notched for Mercer (26-8). They exit the Atlantic Sun for the Southern conference this summer with several parting gifts, leaving with a split of the regular season championship, the tournament championship, the Player of the Year Award (Langston Hall), Defensive Player of the Year (Daniel Coursey) and Coach of the Year (Bob Hoffman).
The teams split two regular season contests, with both teams winning at home by double digits. However, Mercer was still smarting over failing to reach the NCAA tourney the past two seasons, as FGCU ruined their dreams in the 2012 conference semifinals and last season’s championship game on the Bears’ home floor.
For the game’s first 30 minutes, it appeared that Mercer was going to make sure “Dunk City” (Fort Myers, FL) would be closed for the rest of the weekend. The Eagles (22-12) were affectionately given that name after last season’s improbable Sweet 16 run, earning them the distinction of being the first No. 15 seed to advance that far in the tourney.
However, FGCU’s first dunk didn’t take place until the 13:51 mark of the second half, cutting the lead to 10 points. It was the closest the Eagles had been since they trailed 24-15 with 5:11 remaining in the first half, a margin established by an 11-0 run Bears run. This year’s Eagles team was more concentrated on defense and rebounding, but a vociferous Alico Arena crowd brought on last year’s trademark play that ignited their postseason run.