The walk from the parking lot outside Mercer’s University Center is usually pretty peaceful on a game day.
The stroll was much different Saturday hours before the A-Sun tournament championship game between East Tennessee State and Mercer. A festive group of students and fans gathered outside the University Center to tailgate, and the result was a scene more suited for homecoming.
This was a much bigger deal for Mercer, which played its biggest game in 25 years a few hours later inside the sparkling University Center.
“I think the people in our town, our community our Chamber of Commerce did an amazing job with this tournament,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “There really was a big buzz around town, and a lot of that goes to all the people who worked so hard to make this tournament a success. I think the school and the community did a great job hosting this tournament.”
The Bears had something to do with that success, however, with their run to the championship game.
They created a buzz in this town that resonated more with the community than any other sporting event in my five years in Macon.
Much of that buzz comes with playing for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. People who usually have no interest in Mercer became interested in Mercer. Walking around downtown earlier Saturday afternoon, people just wanted to talk about the game. One person was throwing a tailgate party before heading over to the University Center. Another one was having a group come over at his house to watch the game.
Rarely does anything in this town have a unifying effect, but Mercer presented a team and a cause to get behind. Before this week, some people in Macon didn’t seem to know that we have a Division I basketball program in our city. By Saturday afternoon, I don’t know if any Macon resident had that same oversight.
The game was the biggest sporting event during my near five years in Macon. Many of those I spoke to on Saturday who have lived here much longer said they couldn’t remember a bigger sporting event in Macon.
“I think we came a long way this week to picking up support from a lot of people who didn’t know a lot about us,” Hoffman said. “But we need to get that same support every day. This shows what we can do and what this program can be in everybody can come together.
Saturday’s game might not have drawn the biggest crowd ever at the University Center — the Alabama, Florida State and Georgia Tech games here during the past two years appeared to have larger crowds. But the arena, which was about 90 percent full, was as loud as any I’ve seen here, and most of those fans brought a greater energy than those crowds. Almost every person in the University Center remained standing during the final few minutes. That wasn’t the case in the close loss to Alabama, nor the overtime defeat against Georgia Tech.
These crowds and the support of the community sent an impressive message to the A-Sun. This community will support this tournament, and the conference could do a lot worse than keeping the tournament here after its two-year contract ends.
What Mercer did here on the court during the past three days is nothing short of remarkable. But what the tournament did for the community was even bigger.
Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4248 or firstname.lastname@example.org