Selling the average Middle Georgia sports fan on Mercer basketball is a work in progress.
Granted, Mercer has come a long way from its initial days at Hawkins Arena. Games that merely drew a gathering of close friends at times seven or eight years ago now draw more than a couple of thousand fans. And big games, like Thursday’s showdown with Florida Gulf Coast, have drawn crowds that have reached the arena’s 3,500-seat capacity.
Mercer definitely has kicked it up several notches from its days at tiny Porter Gym. And that’s much to the credit of Bob Hoffman’s program development, as well as the university’s solid marketing efforts.
Still, heading into Thursday’s game, it was easy to doubt the depth of the fan base. Sure, the growing attendance figures demonstrate the fan base is getting wider. But outside of responding to big plays, as well as some participation by a small but energetic student section, crowds at Mercer games just haven’t seemed to emotionally invest themselves. It’s a sit back, relax and enjoy crowd, not a vocal, get on your feet crowd.
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A fan base that has become a mile wide but remains only an inch deep in spots? Maybe. But that’s OK at this point, considering where the program has come from. Even Butler, which rose from the mid-major ranks to become a national championship contender, took several years to build its basketball program to where it is now.
There’s nothing wrong with being a work in progress. Just as long as progress is being made.
The progress Mercer made Thursday in its 68-55 win over Florida Gulf Coast was substantial on all fronts. Backed by a crowd that was well above capacity -- the occasional empty reserved seats here or there notwithstanding -- Mercer absolutely shut down Florida Gulf Coast, comfortably winning the first battle between the A-Sun’s top two programs.
Mercer demonstrated Thursday that it could control the flow of the game, even against one of its strongest opponents. And there’s nothing better than winning to help develop the fan base.
But it was the way that Mercer took command of the game that likely will have fans coming back for more -- and come back with more intensity.
Ike Nwamu’s dunk six minutes and 46 seconds into the contest? Huge. Tremendous. Spectacular. The way he wound up for the dunk, coming off a steal by Langston Hall, was telegraphed so well that the building was expecting something big. And Nwamu didn’t disappoint.
Between that dunk, a follow-up dunk by Daniel Coursey -- who set the program’s career blocks record later in the game -- and a 3-pointer by Bud Thomas, Mercer just about blew the roof off the building. That 55-second sequence might have produced the loudest moment in the history of Hawkins Arena.
Sure, the game had its ebbs and flows after that. Florida Gulf Coast came back to tie it, but the Eagles never led following that sequence. Mercer ran away with things in the second half, sending that big crowd home happy.
And maybe, just maybe, those fans left Hawkins Arena a bit more emotionally invested in Mercer basketball.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.