Bear-lievers: Mercer is talk of sports world after stunning victory

jkovac@macon.comMarch 21, 2014 

When you look back years from now to the second day of spring 2014 and recall how Mercer University’s basketball team toppled the storied Blue Devils of Duke, 78-71, forever remember this:

There were hundreds, perhaps a thousand, maybe more, jammed into the middle of a blocked-off main thoroughfare at the edge of Mercer’s campus.

For the better part of three early-afternoon hours -- on a workday Friday, mind you -- they rooted, groaned and screamed, and in the end they danced.

There, 200 or so paces from Interstate 75, they ebbed and flowed, at full throat one minute, worried the next. They were a swelling sea of Mercer pride, edge-of-their-seats inhabitants of an open-air Bear cave.

And they were watching the game on a 9-by-12-foot television screen perched on a forklift.

What better scene for a workmanlike win?

A signature win, the sports talkers will deem it -- Mercer’s March Madness moment in a big, fat orange sun.

In the aftermath, CBS broadcaster Ernie Johnson Jr., a Georgia man himself, a former Macon TV-news anchorman no less, could be heard saying, “They are honking their horns down there on the Gray Highway.”

In the middle of Montpelier Avenue, a two-lane artery in the shadows of north-campus spires, they were doing far more.

Most of it legal.

One student, though, spoke of making good on a promise to the team. He said he’d informed the boys in orange and black, some of them classmates of his, that if they beat Duke in the NCAA tourney, college basketball’s circus big top, he would streak through Mercer Village -- sans clothes.

And why not?

Fourteen-seed Mercer had just knocked off three-seed Duke, and it was almost too much to fathom.

People kept saying, “We beat Duke,” as if to remind themselves that it had happened, that they’d seen it.

“Still can’t believe it,” said Victor Dixon, a truck driver who took the afternoon off to watch. “But I was a witness. It happened. We just beat Duke. Mercer shocked the world. Little old Mercer went up to Raleigh and beat Duke in their backyard.”

But those at the Montpelier gathering almost missed the best part.

‘They’re men’

The game wasn’t a minute old when one of the fellows who’d set up the jumbo TV told a reporter asking how big the thing was said, “It doesn’t like heat.”

He is believed to have been referring to the sunny, 70-degree day, not the hot-shooting Dukies, who early on splashed in 3-pointer after 3-pointer.

But after a half, Mercer trailed by just a point, 35-34.

At the break, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knew his team was in a battle. He told a television reporter that the senior-laden Mercer squad is “a really good basketball team.”

“They’re men,” he said.

And in the second half they went to work.

A fan from Houston County named Chris Fesmire, watching there in the throng on Montpelier, noticed that the TV was mounted on a forklift 15 or so feet off the ground.

It was a sight that’d make an engineering-school grad smile. A country boy, too.

“Makes me feel like I’m back home in Kathleen,” Fesmire said.

Next to him, fan Homer Nelson, a retired ophthalmologist and 1955 Mercer grad, soaked in the scene.

Remember now, there was a TV on a forklift and there were lawn chairs set up facing it in the middle of street. Nelson was sitting in one.

“This, to me, shows what Mercer can mean to Macon and Bibb County,” he said. “It makes you proud.”

Nearby, women from a local law office were on their lunch break. Asked if they’d watch the second half back at work, a legal assistant whispered, “We can’t disclose that.”

‘We can win it’

As the second half unfolded, the scene morphed from family picnic to high church.

Sandwiches, pizza slices, wings and nachos gave way to nerves.

Mercer nosed ahead 43-40.

Justis Ward, a freshman biology major from Douglasville, began ribbing a seemingly disinterested dorm mate.

“I don’t think he understands the realness of this event,” Ward said. “We’re in the NCAA tournament, man.”

“I’m feeling it,” replied the dorm mate, Alejandro Granda-Malaver, a technical communications sophomore. “I’m just not super-really hyped. I know anything’s possible. We can win it.”

Mercer went up 49-48 with 11 minutes left.

A minute later, Duke eased on top, 51-49.

Back and forth it went.

“Let’s go, Mer-cer!” came the chant from a crowd decked out in orange everything. Orange T-shirts, golf shirts, sunglasses, hair bows, earrings. Even the red berries on the holly bushes that flank the Mercer quad took on an orange glow.

With their team in lock step with the Blue Devils, the Mercer faithful booed Duke’s coach when he flashed on screen; the Duke mascot, too.

It was 63-63 with 2:30 left when Zach Jackson, a safety on the Mercer football team, gazed out over the crowd and said, “This is crazy. If we pull this off, this place is gonna erupt.”

Seconds later, the big-screen TV went blank.

‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’

Maybe there was a wire loose. Maybe the screen overheated. The TV guy couldn’t tell.

With hundreds of eyes on the now-blank screen, the guy flipped switches and jiggled equipment.

While he did, Duke faded to black.

Mercer took a 65-63 lead with just under 2 minutes remaining. Then the Bears broke it open.

“Fix the TV! Fix the TV!” someone hollered.

But no one seemed to care. The sound from the broadcast feed played on. Soon, part of the picture returned, just not the part with the Mercer basket.

Then, 19 seconds left.

No picture, but a sound.

A Mercer free throw.

Stripping the net.

Loud and clear, a bear claw of a dagger.

Mercer 74, Duke 68.

Commence bedlam.

Students streamed from dormitories.

Shirtless young men embraced.

Old-timers beamed.

College kids beelined for celebratory brewskis. Others had long since partaken.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said sophomore Chris Walker, a political science major from Miami. “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

Sherri Moore, an administrator at a local tech school, said to no one in particular, “Can you believe it?”

She said, “I mean, this is the most excited I’ve ever been to have my Final Four bracket shredded to pieces.”

Then there was student Tony Bernardo.

His hands trembled. His clothes were on. For the time being.

Bernardo, 46, returned to school to study sports management. He said he knows some of the players.

He described himself as “the non-traditional guy here ... their uncle figure or whatever. Everybody on campus calls me the old guy.”

He said he’d just sent the team a congratulatory text message.

“I told them I was so happy for them,” Bernardo said. “And you don’t want to know what I told them I’ll do if they beat Duke.

“I’m supposed to run naked through Mercer Village, screaming, ‘Go Bears!’”

Some day -- or night -- in the not-too-distant future, at an undisclosed hour at the north end of campus, he says he will high-tail it au naturel.

Should be quite the sight.

It will take some doing, though, to match what went down there Friday afternoon.

Mercer fans saw plenty -- more than many of them ever dreamed. They got an eyeful for all time.

Their Bears, they’ve already gone streaking.

Right into the national spotlight.

Contact writer Joe Kovac Jr. at 744-4397.

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