When Florida Gulf Coast captured the nation's heart by becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, it was easy to forget that the high-flying Eagles didn't even win their conference's regular season title.
Last year's Atlantic Sun champ was Mercer, which split a pair of regular season games with FGCU but lost the one that mattered most on its home floor in the conference tournament title game.
"We were happy for them because you want your league to do well, but at the same point, you're thinking, 'That could have been us,' " Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said Sunday. "But I think that fueled our guys. I don't think there's any team in the nation that worked harder on their game last spring than our guys did."
All of Mercer's spring weightlifting and individual workouts proved worthwhile Sunday afternoon when the Bears enacted revenge on FGCU with a 68-60 win in the Atlantic Sun championship game. The victory secured Mercer's first NCAA tournament bid since 1985 and robbed the Eagles of the chance to try to replicate last March's memorable run.
If FGCU's aerial show might have been more fun to watch in the NCAA tournament than Mercer's slow-paced attack, it's still reasonable to think the Bears might have the better chance to pull an opening-round upset. Last season, Mercer toppled Florida State and Alabama in the regular season and Tennessee in the opening round of the NIT. This season, the Bears took down Ole Miss and Seton Hall and fell by only three at NCAA tournament-bound Texas.
"These guys are not fearful," Hoffman said. "I think our guys feel like we can win anywhere against anybody. We're grateful and thankful to be in the tournament right now, and I know we'll work hard to beat whoever we're chosen to play against. "
Mercer certainly appeared to be the better, more motivated team Sunday when it bolted to a 33-17 halftime lead. FGCU shot only 5 of 24 from the field in the first half and could neither force enough turnovers to get out in transition nor solve the Bears' shifting half-court defense.
An improved second half from point guard Brett Comer and Chase Fieler fueled an FGCU surge as the Eagles pulled within one on a bucket from Fieler. Mercer weathered the storm by ripping off the next seven points, capitalizing on second-chance points and FGCU foul trouble.
"The separation early was huge so we could weather their runs because you knew they were coming," Hoffman said. "Over the last three years, I think we're top five in the country in road victories. We've done it in a lot of tough environments against major-college teams. They were able to pull from all those experiences today to find a way to get it done."
When it was over, Mercer players celebrated at mid-court and Hoffman wrapped his arms around the shoulders of his assistant coaches.
For the Bears, the frustration of watching FGCU's run last March and wondering if it could have been them was replaced with the joy of avenging last year's disappointment and having the chance to make a run of their own.
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