As the final seconds ticked away Sunday night in Mercer University’s 83-63 loss to the University of Tennessee, the sea of black and orange that had gathered at Mercer Village rose from their seats and gave the Bears a grateful, final round of applause.
While the disappointment that Mercer’s season had ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament was evident, so was the pride in the Bears’ unexpected run that included winning the A-Sun tournament, going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1985 and beating national power Duke two days earlier.
“I was hopeful (that Mercer would win), but I’m not disappointed at all,” said Michael Butler, a fan from Centerville -- one of more than 1,000 to pack into Mercer Village to watch the game on a large video screen.
The atmosphere was buzzing early on as fans cheered every bucket by the Bears and groaned with every miss or turnover.
Though Mercer trailed 42-27 at halftime, it did little to dampen the spirit of those watching.
Only once during the first half did the crowd fall almost completely silent -- when TNT showed footage of Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman giving his Bears a pre-game pep talk in the locker room.
The crowd hung on every word. When he finished, they let out a roar of approval.
The fans still cheered even as Mercer trailed Tennessee by a double-digit deficit for the entire second half. They applauded in tribute to senior Jake Gollon, who fouled out with 1:56 left in his final game as a Bear.
Many fans said the atmosphere in the village was the next best thing to actually being at the game.
John Abu, a Mercer graduate student from Nigeria who lives in Mercer Village, left his room late in the afternoon when he heard the roaring of the crowd.
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” he said. “Everything feels almost like being there. ... This is my first semester here, and it’s a great tradition. It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like this. I’ll be honest -- it’s great.”
Mercer President Bill Underwood attended the game in Raleigh, N.C., but saw pictures on social media showing the crowd in the village and said he was grateful for the community support.
“Nothing brings together the community like sports,” he said. “It demonstrates the strength of the community support we’ve gotten, and it’s very gratifying to see. It’s just the beginning of some great things.”
Though organizers set up 500 chairs Sunday with a larger screen than the one at the Friday viewing party in which Mercer upset Duke, the crowd swelled to at least twice that.
Those who couldn’t find a viewing spot outdoors were squeezed inside Mercer Village’s various eateries.
Jessica Walden, spokeswoman for the College Hill Alliance, said the crowds during both parties are proof that Macon has become a college town.
“Not only are we demonstrating community spirit and our local businesses are benefitting, but we’re also proving we’re a college town,” she said. “This has been a home away from home for everyone. The whole community has been here. ‘Thank yous’ have been replaced by ‘Go Bears!’ ’’
Walden said Mercer hopes to do future viewing parties next season, regardless of whether the Bears make the NCAA tournament.
The eateries in Mercer Village also were winners this weekend. Restaurants such as Francar’s and Margaritas ran out of most things on the menu, even after anticipating the crowd Sunday. Lines were out the door at all of the restaurants.
“I had two extra deliveries (of food), and it was still not enough,” Francar’s owner Carl Fambro said. “Even on Saturday, we had a big crowd because everybody was at the bookstore buying T-shirts. It was more than there was on Friday. We got behind today and we never caught up.”
Brad Cork, who co-owns Margaritas with his wife, Valerie, almost ran out of alcohol. He said the only comparable days for his sales were Mercer’s first football game last fall and homecoming weekend.
“I had two record sales days,” he said. “I’m out of just about everything. These were great sales days.”
The merchants were anticipating having similar business had Mercer advanced to the Sweet 16.
“Obviously, we were looking forward to doing it again,” Cork said.
“But at the same time, we weren’t expecting to go this far.”
Members of Mercer’s other sports teams were cheering on the basketball squad Sunday, and said the success of other sports like football and baseball have helped put the university on the sports map.
“(The basketball team) keeps surprising people, which is great for our school,” said freshman Tyler Ward, a linebacker on the football team. “It’s a great year to be a Bear.”
Davis Trexler, a junior on the cross country team, agreed.
“(The loss) is disappointing to a degree, but it’s been a great season, a real inspiring season -- imagine all the recruits we’ll be able to get,” he said. “I didn’t keep track of Mercer before I went here, but we’re really breaking out on the national scene. It’s just been super.”
Underwood said the NCAA tournament has provided a great stage to tell Mercer’s story, especially with the way the team conducted itself.
“First of all, this is the greatest season of men’s basketball in Mercer’s history,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the way the men represented us on and off the court. ... No doubt about it, this is the kind of national attention, especially with the performance in the NCAAs, that tells our broader story of the great things happening here. It’s an opportunity you cannot buy.”