A year ago, Florida Gulf Coast fired something of a warning shot by reaching the A-Sun tournament championship game in its first year of eligibility, letting the rest of the conference know that it would be a player in the race for the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
Florida Gulf Coast followed up this year by winning the conference tournament. And, in both instances, the newcomer caused plenty of heartbreak for tournament host Mercer.
The Eagles broke open a close game in the second half and knocked off Mercer 88-75 on Saturday afternoon, clinching the A-Sun tournament title at Hawkins Arena and disappointing all but a small section of the announced crowd of 3,494, denying Mercer’s student body a chance to celebrate a conference championship on its home floor. It was also the second year in a row that Florida Gulf Coast ended Mercer’s A-Sun tournament run, following last year’s semifinal matchup.
Mercer’s first home loss of the season is one that will sting, no matter how many more games the Bears play this season.
“We worked all year for this,” Mercer junior Bud Thomas said. “So to be able to get here is a great opportunity for us, and obviously not getting it done, it hurts. This is what we live for.”’
The Bears followed the game with the longest walk of the season: around the arena floor to high-five with fans.
Mercer was guaranteed a postseason tournament by virtue of winning the regular season. Florida Gulf Coast’s win meant that the only two teams in the conference with winning records will keep playing.
Being the bridesmaid wasn’t part of Mercer’s thinking.
“We need to grieve,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “We need to hurt. I’m hurting. It’ll take a awhile to get over this. This is not what we wanted to do. We worked real hard to get where we were.”
As did the Eagles, who lost to Belmont in last year’s title game.
“I think we felt like last year, sitting here, the feeling was horrible,” tournament MVP Brett Comer said. “We wanted to come out and really push the momentum on everybody and step on everybody and keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and not let up for anybody or any team.”
The largest lead in the previous two meetings this season between the teams was nine, held by Mercer in the second half of the game back in early January, won 77-70 in overtime by the Bears.
The Eagles -- who topped Mercer in a semifinal a year ago -- cruised past that with an 10-2 run that started with Sherwood Brown’s 3-pointer at the 9:04 mark of the second half. He was 4-for-5 on 3-pointers for 16 points. Chase Fieler scored seven straight in less than two minutes, and the second-seeded Eagles soon sported a surprising 17-point lead.
“When we came out in the second half, we made a huge run,” Brown said. “That’s when I pretty much felt like, in all honesty, that if we just kept pushing, that they wouldn’t be able to come back.”
The Bears had no answer for Comer, who tied his season high of 21 points with nearly 13 minutes left in the game. He didn’t score the rest of the way but already had inflicted major damage on the Bears.
“We tried not to help off the shooters so much because we know he really wants to drive and kick,” Mercer's Langston Hall said. “(Saturday), he was being really aggressive, and he was getting a lot of floaters and a lot of pull-up jumpers and he just played a great game.”
The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Winter Park, Fla., surpassed his season’s average with a full five minutes left in the first half and had 12 at the break, most coming on drives straight down the middle. He was 0-for-6 from the floor in the loss at Mercer two months ago.
“He finished some of those plays he missed the first couple games,” Hoffman said. “No secret, really. He made shots, we missed a few. He was special (Saturday).”
Brown and A-Sun defender of the year Bernard Thompson had only three points each at the half. But Brown finished with 16 and Thompson 11, to go with 15 from Fieler and 12 from Christophe Varidel.
Travis Smith rebounded from a tough first half to finish with 16, while Thomas and Jake Gollon had 14 each and Hall 12.
Hall had nine assists and no turnovers, a nice stat line lost in Mercer’s 38.8-percent day from the floor and Florida Gulf Coast’s 50.8-percent effort.
“We had a lot of good looks; we just missed some shots (Saturday),” Hall said. “They contested every shot at the rim, and we just missed some easy ones, everybody all around.”
Florida Gulf Coast led by two at halftime, as it did in the first two games. Both teams shot well from deep in the first 20 minutes, and Mercer had nine offensive rebounds but only two second-chance points through 20 minutes, although that was two more than Florida Gulf Coast, which had seven more points from the bench.
Smith had a rough 1-for-5 first half from the floor, and the Bears couldn’t get into a serious rhythm. Hall kept the Bears afloat with 11 points on 3-of-4 3-point shooting, and he had five assists and no turnovers in 19 minutes.
Florida Gulf Coast shot out into the second half with an 11-2 run, keyed by 3s from Brown, Comer and Thompson. Hoffman alerted officials of some fouls they might have missed on the quick and athletic Eagles, who were whistled for the same number of fouls as Mercer.
But the Eagles controlled the pace, and that was the difference.
“We wanted to try to get the game in the 70s,” Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield said. “And then to score 88 points, never would I have imagined that. It was certainly to our benefit to push the tempo.”
For the Bears, this year isn’t over, but there are thoughts of next year emerging.
“We’re gonna come in ready,” said Gollon, who returns along with Hall, Thomas and four other juniors who play quality minutes. “We’re gonna come in hot, ready to roll next year.”