FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Mercer guard Langston Hall watched Florida Gulf Coast become the darlings of last season's NCAA tournament with one thought in his mind.
"Man," Hall said, "that could have been us." This time, it will be. Mercer will do the playing, FGCU will have to do the watching. There won't be a repeat Dunk City run in this year's NCAA tournament — not after Mercer captured its first berth in the Big Dance since 1985, beating top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast 68-60 in the Atlantic Sun championship game on Sunday, getting the ultimate comeuppance for what happened a year ago when the Eagles took the tournament title on the Bears' home court.
Everyone knows what happened next: Little-known FGCU ran and dunked its way into the Sweet Sixteen. This time, it's Mercer's turn to try and make some magic happen, getting its NCAA ticket after seeing what was an 18-point lead cut all the way down to one, but hanging on to hand the Eagles their third home loss in 33 games over the last two seasons.
A year ago, Mercer coach Bob Hoffman predicted that FGCU would win NCAA games. This time, he sees no reason why his club can't do the same. "We have a great league and it's underappreciated and it's unbelievable how it continues to be underappreciated," Hoffman said. "Our teams have to play so many money games. That's why the records are so bad. But we have great coaches and great players in our league and it was witnessed today. That was a great college basketball game."
Hall and Anthony White Jr. scored 15 points each for the Bears (26-8), who won despite shooting 37 percent. Daniel Coursey scored 13 points and Jakob Gollon — who played in the 152nd game of his career, second-most in NCAA history — added 12 for second-seeded Mercer, which split two games with FGCU in the regular season.
Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer scored 14 points each for FGCU (22-12), which got 13 from Chase Fieler. The Eagles missed 14 of their 16 3-point attempts, gave up 15 second-chance points and were handcuffed by foul trouble all game.
"It's not easy to play with expectations," FGCU coach Joe Dooley said. The Eagles are assured of a berth in the NIT, and hope to host at least one game. "We never really felt like we weren't going to win," said a red-eyed Fieler, who congratulated every Mercer player he could find before leaving the court as the Bears commenced their net-cutting celebration.
Thanks largely to a 20-2 run and an 0-for-11 effort by FGCU on jumpers in the opening 20 minutes, Mercer's lead was 16 points at the half. But the Bears seemed stagnant offensively to open the second 20 minutes, almost looking to burn clock instead of score points.
FGCU took advantage. Over a 6½-minute stretch, a 16-point deficit got trimmed to one on a score by Fieler with 8:50 left. After the Eagles missed their first 10 tries from 3-point range, Brett Comer and Filip Cvjeticanin made consecutive tries from beyond the arc, then Comer added a three-point play and Fieler's basket made it 43-42.
Mercer has thrived in close games all season, and it showed. Very much on the ropes, the Bears ripped off the next seven points, needing only 59 seconds to do so, and simply held on from there. Then again, that's just in their nature. Over the last three seasons, the Bears have 30 road wins — only three teams nationally have more.
"They love road kill," Hoffman said. "They love to go get it." White said Mercer's six overtime games this season — the Bears won five, including in the A-Sun semifinals — paid off Sunday. "It was actually calming to get out of that stretch of how loud they were," White said.
Comer had a steal and set up Thompson for a spectacular dunk while getting fouled, getting the Eagles within four again — only to have Gollon answer with one of the biggest shots of the day, a 3-pointer.
Not long afterward, the Bears were cutting down the net, just like they planned. When Mercer lost at Florida Gulf Coast on Feb. 21, Gollon said the Bears figured they would be back in Fort Myers for the title game, and their chance at avenging the hurt of a year ago.
He walked off the court Sunday with the net draped around his neck. "It really hurt last year," Gollon said. "We thought last year was our year. ... But we knew that coming back in here and cutting these ones down might be a good last chapter to the story that we've written thus far."