They call it March Madness for a reason. Strange things happen in college basketball tournaments. Things that never would happen in the regular season seem to happen all the time once the calendar flips to March.
When a team that has the best defense in the A-Sun and the 13th best defense in the country all of a sudden gives up a ton of points well, that qualifies as something very unusual.
The Mercer Bears had allowed 57 points per game in the first 32 games. They gave up 88 on Saturday. Thats why they lost the A-Sun final to Florida Gulf Coast by 13 points.
Thats not the way we play, really, Mercer forward Bud Thomas said. We like to pick our spots and execute and get good shots every time. If a team is scoring 88 on us, thats not our identity by any means.
Mercers identity has been all about defense, but on Saturday, Florida Gulf Coast had a wild card. Sophomore Brett Comer, who averaged only 7.5 points this season and was the Eagles fourth-leading scorer, went off for 21 points.
He made shots (Saturday) he hasnt been making, Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. Hed been turning it over a little more, especially against us, because we had done a good job.
He made shots, and we missed a few. He was special (Saturday).
This wasnt really supposed to play out this way. Hoffman seemed to have everything in order. He had the team. He had the No. 1 seed. He had the home-court advantage. His team had played well in the two tournament games leading up to the championship.
But Hoffmans Bears were still not able to get over that proverbial hump. They played a team that had a very similar year. Both Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast were 23-10 entering Saturdays game. And while it might seem simplistic to say the Eagles were just better for 40 minutes, its pretty much true.
They were just really good, Hoffman said of his opponent. They made plays. We didnt.
A two-point halftime lead for Florida Gulf Coast expanded quickly, and by the middle of the second half the Bears were in trouble.
Our offense was flowing pretty good, forward Jake Gollon said. We scored 75 points. Thats probably above our average. Defensively, we didnt play so hot. I think thats where they got momentum and took over the game.
Our guys kept making runs back at them, but every time we got it to eight, wed make a stop, and wed have a turnover that kept us from making the next play or get us a little bit closer, Hoffman said.
Now, Mercer must do exactly what it did last year -- forget about what happened in the conference tournament and get ready for another chance at a postseason title. The Bears did it last year, winning the CIT. Theyll play in the NIT this year, and thats a great accomplishment. But they wanted something a little more special. They wanted that chance to play in the big dance of the NCAA tournament.
All year long, summer, fall and throughout the whole thing, all we were focused on was winning this game we just lost, Thomas said. When we dont reach that ultimate goal, theres a bitter taste in your mouth.
We need to grieve, Hoffman explained. We need to hurt. Im hurting. Itll take awhile to get over this. This is not what we wanted to do. We worked real hard to get to where we were.
Theyll start over Wednesday when they get back to work. This Bears team is good enough to do some damage in March, and while it wont be in the exact tournament they hoped to play in, itll be better than sitting at home watching everyone else play on television.
But Saturdays game will sting for a while. A team that has had two great seasons in a row has no conference title to show for it. The Bears will have to rearrange their goals once again.
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