March Madness becomes January Jubilation

mlough@macon.comJanuary 22, 2014 

The horn sounded a minute or two after 2 p.m. on that sunny Saturday afternoon in March.

The game, in reality, had pretty much been decided about 20 minutes earlier, maybe on the possessions that ended with Chase Fieler’s dunk and Sherwood Brown’s 3-pointer that made the lead 13 with about nine minutes left.

Nevertheless, the A-Sun conference tournament championship, with the second seed in its second year of Division I postseason eligibility beating the top seed in its fourth decade of Division I postseason eligibility, was soon over.

The sound of “ooof” comes to mind when guessing how Mercer felt afterward. Goodness, all the negotiations and money and doings to get the tournament on campus, and the Bears were denied in the championship game for the second time in four years.

The first one? Oh, it was nice to get there, and the arena was as pumped up as ever, but Mercer was a low seed, so it was a surprise.

This time, last March? The trip was expected, and everything went -- in the words of the ever-eloquent Barney Fife -- blooey. It was the Bears’ first home loss of the season.

Then for two NCAA tournament weeks, all Mercer players and coaches, observers and fans saw and heard about was Dunk City, Dunk City, Dunk City. No doubt they added a word or two in there, and “golly” wasn’t among them.

The last meeting was a game in which people should have been turned away at the door but instead was played surrounded by some empty seats, “announced” attendance notwithstanding.

This one?

Oh my. What’s the weight limit for the rafters? Goodness, this game has two starters with broken/fractured noses, Mercer’s Bud Thomas and Florida Gulf Coast’s Brett Comer.

It’s certainly the biggest regular-season on-campus sporting event at Mercer in a long, long time, even bigger than the visits from power-conference programs.

It’s big, because it gives the winner a step up in the always-tight A-Sun standings, and for Mercer, defending the house is huge.

It’s vital, because it’s not a surprise. Mercer is somebody. Mercer’s a player. Mercer’s a favorite, a target, the hunted.

It’s huge, because of the opponent, with whom a nifty rivalry was forming had Mercer not chosen to bolt for the Southern Conference.

It’s stout, because it’s a chance to avenge -- maybe for the first of two times this season -- a crushing loss on the home court in March.

It’s significant, because it’s something of a defining moment for perhaps the best senior class in Mercer sports history -- calm down, Mercer baseball seniors, you’ll get your turn -- led by one of the most impactful players in any sport at Mercer, one Langston Hall.

And with the A-Sun tournament on campus sites, at the homes of higher seeds, the No. 1 team is at home until the end.

We can call it now. The fire marshal will be involved in the series’ second game this season Feb. 21 at Alico Arena, where attendees better hope everybody showers and spritzes on deodorant, because it will be tight.

And if the preseason polls are right, then we’d have Mercer-Florida Gulf Coast again in March, and it could be back here. Facilities folks on campus better start thinking of a way to get those portable bleachers from the football stadium into Hawkins Arena and onto the concourse, because any rematch in March would be a seam-buster ... one would think.

But first, this one.

How big is this game? How good a game will it be?

So big and so good that nobody should get in free. Visits to Chick-fil-A should be just about the meals. Yeah, that big. Pretty much everybody should actually pay to get in (which they won’t regret).

No, this isn’t quite “Dunk City 2013-14.” It’s a different team, some new pieces, a new head coach and fewer dunks than Mercer. But it’s still Comer, who had a monster championship game against Mercer, future NBAer Chase Fieler and blanket defender Bernard Thompson.

Larry, Curly and Moe they ain’t.

If a regular-season game can feel like a tournament game, like a game to go to the NCAA tournament, this is it.

Mercer’s departure from the conference after this season kills what was blooming quickly into a marquee A-Sun rivalry destined to draw attention outside of the conference lines, based on what has happened the past two years and the tremendous potential of this season’s meetings setting the stage for the future.

And for all of the “just another game talk,” the postgame reaction for one team will be a wee bit more enthusiastic than after having routed, say, Lipscomb.

“We obviously respect them, but we don’t really like them, and I don’t think they really like us,” said Thomas, more known for making shots than stirring pots. “Obviously as athletes and big-time competitors, we respect each other. But, you know, we want to win, and there’s nothing better than watching them lose.”

They’ll go at it again in just 29 days.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or

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