RALEIGH, N.C. — Bob Hoffman's voice caught as his thoughts flitted from senior to senior.
He's got seven of them on this Mercer team; five are starters and the driving force behind 14th-seeded Bears' sensational 78-71 win against No. 3 seed Duke on Friday afternoon in the NCAA tournament's Midwest Region second round.
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Hoffman thought about sitting in Langston Hall's living room years ago, telling the dynamic guard they could do something special together at Mercer. He thought of Jakob Gollon, who'd battled through multiple injuries and gets to experience this as a sixth-year senior. He thought of the rest of his seniors, the group Kevin Canevari called his "brothers."
And here in a deserted hallway, nearly an hour after his Bears had pulled off a most surprising upset, Hoffman paused.
"Senior Day was awful," Hoffman said slowly. "I was bawling. I'm getting emotional now."
He paused again.
"I'm an emotional guy, sometimes too passionate," he said. "But I want them to be the best they can be, and I want them to be successful and know what they have done for our program.
"It's special to see them enjoy the fruits of their labor."
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One year after the same Mercer players sat at home and watched their Atlantic Sun rival and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast pull off a pair of upsets and become the NCAA tournament's darling, they'll get to experience all that they just missed. Last season, they fell to FGCU in the A-Sun championship game after winning the league's regular-season crowd. Gollon said "it was hard to watch" FGCU's magical Sweet 16 run.
"We were thinking that could have been us," senior guard Anthony White said. "That's something we kept in our heads throughout the whole season, starting in the summer."
This season, the Bears paid the Eagles back, beating them on their own court in this year's A-Sun title game to earn the program's first NCAA bid since 1985.
Though these Bears had never been on this big stage, they never appeared fazed. All week, they radiated confidence and the kind of faith in one another that only comes with familiarity.
"It was a quiet kind of confidence," Mercer athletic director Jim Cole said. "I saw the kids in the hotel, and it was almost like they knew something I didn't know."
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It, too, was a secret Duke's players didn't learn until it was too late. And it's a simple one: Experience counts for far more than people give it credit. Four-year mid-major players can beat future lottery picks with less than a season of college ball under their belts. It's no longer a surprise; it's reality.
In Friday's game, the Bears essentially neutralized Duke's two biggest weapons – Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, who combined to shoot 6-for-24 and turn the ball over seven times – while dominating in the paint and responding well to Duke's big shots. Though Mercer typically attempts more threes, and Hall, the point guard, usually scores more, Hoffman said his team adapted to Duke's emphasis on shutting down Hall and their perimeter attack. Mercer scored 26 points in the paint. The Bears also only turned the ball over eight times in the game.
"They were pressuring up so much we had to get into the lane and get some easy baskets," he said. "We were fortunate enough to finish a few."
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Down five points with 4:52 to go, Mercer mounted an 11-0 run to grab the game's momentum and all but secure its outcome. The two highlights: White draining the game-tying three, and Hall finding a darting Daniel Coursey with a beautiful pass for a lay-in and-one, which pushed the Bears' lead to five points.
"Lang was just able to find me," Coursey said. "We run it all the time in games. … Our conference teams were starting to take it away, they knew we were getting easy buckets. Duke, they underestimated it a little bit."
After Coursey's basket, 67 seconds remained on the scoreboard. The crowd roared, the finish line in sight.
"It was sort of the moment," Coursey said.
Surely a One Shining Moment.
In the moments that followed the final buzzer, players embraced. Senior guard Kevin Canevari danced, as he always does after big wins. And the Mercer fans cheered, louder than they had all afternoon, if that's even possible.
They'd come all the way from Macon, Ga., to cheer on their underdogs. They left PNC Arena as the first fans of the nation's newest Cinderella.
They weren't alone, either. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Louisville's Rick Pitino both lauded Mercer from their NCAA tournament sites, with Pitino touting the Bears as a potential Final Four threat.
Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, on the wrong end of an enormous round-of-64 upset for the second time in three years, gave the Bears their due.
He stepped into the jubilant locker room after the game, and his distinctive voice rang out as he told the Mercer players, "if we (had to) get beaten, I'm glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. Good luck to you."
After a moment of stunned silence, a star-struck Coursey could only mutter, "Oh … my … God."
Coursey said he expects the magnitude of the upset – and of the coach and program Mercer defeated – to sink in later. For now, he and his teammates will celebrate. Tomorrow, they'll prepare for No. 11 seed Tennessee, which beat No. 6 UMass later Friday. Last season, the Bears beat the Vols, 75-67, in the NIT.
"I imagine we'll be favored," reserve Darious Moten said, laughing.
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