Madness takes down Mercer

sports@macon.comMarch 9, 2013 

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. That’s why they lost the A-Sun final to Florida Gulf Coast by 13 points.

“That’s 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, that’s not our identity by any means.”

Mercer’s 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 hasn’t been making,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “He’d 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 wasn’t 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 Hoffman’s 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 Saturday’s game. And while it might seem simplistic to say the Eagles were just better for 40 minutes, it’s pretty much true.

“They were just really good,” Hoffman said of his opponent. “They made plays. We didn’t.”

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. That’s probably above our average. Defensively, we didn’t play so hot. I think that’s 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, we’d make a stop, and we’d 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. They’ll play in the NIT this year, and that’s 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 don’t reach that ultimate goal, there’s a bitter taste in your mouth.”

“We need to grieve,” Hoffman explained. “We need to hurt. I’m hurting. It’ll take awhile to get over this. This is not what we wanted to do. We worked real hard to get to where we were.”

They’ll start over Wednesday when they get back to work. This Bears team is good enough to do some damage in March, and while it won’t be in the exact tournament they hoped to play in, it’ll be better than sitting at home watching everyone else play on television.

But Saturday’s 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.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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