MACON, Ga. – Mercer is tired of watching other teams celebrate on its court.
For the fourth year in a row, the Bears hosted the Atlantic Sun tournament. But they keep coming up short of the NCAAs, falling apart in the second half as Florida Gulf Coast pulled away for an 88-73 victory in the championship game Saturday.
"We worked all year for this," junior Bud Thomas said. "This was a great opportunity for us. Not getting it done, it hurts."
As the regular-season champion, Mercer is assured of a consolation trip to the NIT.
Of course, the Bears really wanted their first NCAA bid since 1985.
"We need to grieve. We need to hurt," coach Bob Hoffman said. "It's going to take a while to get over this. It's not what we wanted to do. We worked real hard to get where we wanted to be."
Brett Comer scored 21 points, Sherwood Brown sparked the deciding run, and second-seeded Florida Gulf Coast claimed the first NCAA berth in school history in just their second year of eligibility.
"Drake said it best," Brown said, referring to a song by the hip-hop star. "We started from the bottom. Now we're here."
This is the Eagles' sixth year as a Division I program, but they weren't eligible for the postseason until last season. They nearly made it to the NCAAs on their very first try, losing to Belmont in the A-Sun championship game after squandering an early 13-point lead.
Florida Gulf Coast (24-10) didn't want to go through that again.
"We were sitting there feeling horrible, seeing all their guys dancing around," Comer recalled. "We wanted to come out and push the momentum, step on everybody in our way. We didn't want to let up for any team. We did a great job, and just kept going and going and going."
The Eagles are the first team to claim a spot in the 68-team NCAA field, and they could be poised to pull a surprise or two. After all, this is a team that knocked off Atlantic Coast Conference leader Miami early in the season, played tough at St. John's and Iowa State, and faced VCU and Duke.
"We will not be intimidated," coach Andy Enfield said. "We've seen it all. We're going to have fun with it. Whoever we play, we'll give it our best shot."
At the moment, they're in the mood to celebrate. After the horn sounded, the Eagles hugged and jumped around at midcourt while putting on their championship gear. Chase Fieler showed up at the postgame news conference with a piece of net hanging from his left ear.
For Mercer, it was a bitter blow.
"We just couldn't finish some plays," Hoffman said. "They're really good when they get a lead."
Brown, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, led a 14-3 spurt that broke open what was expected to another tight game between the teams. They split their regular-season meetings — Mercer winning on its home court in overtime, the Eagles pulling out a three-point triumph on their floor.
Travis Smith led Mercer with 16 points, but the Bears (23-11) couldn't overcome 39 percent (26 of 67) shooting from the field. Thomas and Jakob Gollon added 14 points apiece.
Cheered on by a hometown crowd, Mercer raced to an 11-3 lead and forced Florida Gulf Coast to call a quick timeout. After that, it was tight the rest of the half.
Led by Comer, the Eagles ripped off a 15-6 spurt to grab their first lead since the opening minutes, 18-17. The teams went back-and-forth, the lead changing hands 11 times before halftime. Florida Gulf Coast went to the locker room clinging to a 38-36 edge.
But the Eagles came out firing in the second half. Brown swished a 3-pointer and taunted the crowd, Comer knocked down another trey, and Bernard Thompson hit yet another 3. Just like that, Florida Gulf Coast had pushed out to a double-digit lead for the first time, 49-38.
"We didn't do any game-planning at halftime," Enfield said. "I just said, 'The team that defends and goes on a run early in the second half is going to win the game. This is on you. This is where you want to be. It's the A-Sun championship game. You're up by two at halftime on their home court. This is a lot of fun. So go win the game.'"
Gollon's basket capped a 10-4 spurt that was essentially Mercer's last gasp, closing the gap to 58-53.
The Eagles followed a TV timeout with a miss, only to steal the ball back, setting up Brown for a layup. Brown scored two more baskets, including a 3, then Fieler came up with another steal and went in for a jam, pushing Florida Gulf Coast to a 67-54 lead. Fielder's three-point play with 7:36 remaining made it 72-56.
Game over. The Eagles led by as many as 17 down the stretch and were never seriously challenged.
Brown made 4 of 5 from 3-point range. The Eagles shot 51 percent (30 of 59) and dictated the pace of the game, luring Mercer into an up-tempo style that worked better for the visiting team.
"Our goal was to try to push it," Enfield said. "I thought we were better than Mercer at that style of game. We wanted to get the game in the 70s. To score 88 points, I never would've imagined that."
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