How Mercer coach took long road to epic upset of Duke

Bob Hoffman is not in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He is not the coach of the U.S. Olympic Team. He hasn't written any best-selling books or had Fortune 500 companies employ him as a national spokesperson.

His first coaching job was in 1981 at Piedmont High School in rural Oklahoma. His college "break" was coaching the women's team at Division II Southern Nazarene University (Okla.). He moved on to lead the men at Oklahoma Baptist and Texas Pan American. He was a minor league coach in the ABA (Arkansas Aeros) and NBA Development League (Rio Grande Valley Vipers).

Since 2008, he's run the program at Mercer, a small school in Macon, Ga., that hadn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1985 and had never once won a game.

You want to talk about paying your professional dues?

On Friday afternoon, Hoffman struck a blow for everyone toiling away in basketball's badlands, riding buses through the plains and dreaming of a shot at "One Shining Moment."

Bob Hoffman's Mercer Bears 78, Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils 71.

And an NCAA tournament already long on drama and excitement got its most prominent upset courtesy of a 56-year-old overnight sensation 33 years in the making. The joy wasn't limited to 14-seeded Mercer's rooting section. This one was toasted – as any Duke loss is – across the country.

"You're never too old to celebrate," Hoffman said on CBS after the game. "Unbelievable what these dudes believe about each other and what they accomplished. That's the kind of heart it takes, and it's amazing what they've done the last three years, every day believing at the highest level. I'm just blessed to get to coach them and be with them every day.

"Praise the Lord."

Divine inspiration may have played a role, but some of the Bears' motivation and confidence came from a different source – its league rival and last year's March darling, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Mercer beat FGCU twice last season in Atlantic Sun Conference play: once by 14 points, the other time by 13. Then the tide turned in the A-Sun final – FGCU scored the victory and the league's automatic bid. It wound up in the Sweet 16, and "Dunk City" became the toast of the country.

The Bears sat at home and, well, fumed that it wasn't them.

"It was hard to watch," Mercer's Jakob Gallon said this week. "We know that had we been the team that got the bid, we probably could have done something similar. It was tough to watch."

Hoffman stoked the anger into work. He says the focus on being this year's FGCU never wavered. They just buckled down harder and harder and harder.

"It's amazing the amount of work they put in however many days since we got beat by Florida Gulf Coast," Hoffman said on CBS. On Wednesday he had declared, "Our guys worked harder than any team in the country individually to get a chance to get back to the same moment."

Give a motivated, veteran team with seven seniors to an experienced coach such as Hoffman, who has been forced to craft teams under every imaginable scenario from colleges to the pros, and anything is possible.

Even beating the Blue Devils.

This wasn't just going toe-to-toe with Duke and its NBA talent, either. It was when the lonely, tight moments of crunch time came, actually closing out the game on a 20-8 run for a fairly relaxed victory.

This was a clinic even Krzyzewski appreciated.

"I applaud them," he said. "If we got [beat], at least we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team."

Mercer shot 55.6 percent from the floor and 82.1 percent from the foul line. It had assists on 16 of its 25 baskets. The Bears committed just eight turnovers. Team defense held Duke's mega-talented Jabari Parker to just four baskets. They were more poised and together.

This wasn't Cinderella playing out of its mind. It was an excellent, excellent team that just doesn't get much media exposure playing well enough to beat the national power at its own game.

"There is no way we overlooked them," Coach K said. "We had the utmost respect for them. … They're going to be tough to beat."

The Bears agree they aren't close to done. Hoffman and his guys didn't come this far to not think bigger.

"With these guys?" the coach said on CBS. "I don't know who's beating us."

Go ahead and meet the new America's Team, scoring one for the grind.

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