Defeated but still N’IT
Eagles fall 68-60 in Atlantic Sun Conference championship game against second-seeded Mercer
The Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team fell this past Sunday in the Atlantic Sun Conference title game to second-seeded Mercer University, 68-60, in front of a record crowd of 4,702 and a national crowd on ESPN2.
“I’d like to congratulate Mercer on a great season, and I hope they play well in the NCAA Tournament,” FGCU head coach Joe Dooley said of the Bears, who had lost to the Eagles in the A-Sun semifinals and final, respectively, the last two years. “It was an unbelievable atmosphere and the fans have been behind us the whole year. We’re obviously disappointed with the result, but a lot of that was attributable to Mercer’s defense. I’d also like to thank our guys; I’m proud that we got this far, and I’m looking forward to coaching them in the NIT.”
Foul trouble was the key for the Eagles early, with Bernard Thompson and Eric McKnight both on the bench with two fouls early on in the affair. While the duo was on the bench, Mercer ran away from FGCU, going on 11-0 and 16-2 runs to make it a 29-15 Bears’ lead. The Bears stretched that lead to 18 just before the half until Chase Fieler made two free throws bringing the score to 33-17. After the half, FGCU’s Brett Comer and Filip Cvjeticanin made their first three-pointers after the team went 0-9 to begin the game, and FGCU scored 22 of the next 27 points to make it a one-point game, 43-42.
“I thought our guys came out with amazing energy,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said. “We got every loose ball and got off to a complete different start than last time we were here.”
“We never really felt like we weren’t going to win,” said Fieler, his eyes watery after the loss.
FGCU was led by Thompson and Comer, who added 14 points each, while the lone Eagles’ senior, Fieler, walked off the Alico Arena court possibly for the last time, scoring 13 points, and grabbing nine rebounds.
Thompson became the leading scorer in program history, passing the previous leader Ryan Hopkins, with 1,367 points. Comer also tied the career assist record, matching Bryan Crislip’s mark of 606.
Mercer was led by A-Sun Player of the Year and all-tournament team member Langston Hall, who scored 15 points and got seven rebounds. The Eagles sent Hall home the past two years, and revenge was in the cards ever since the Eagles went to the Sweet Sixteen last year.
“Man,” Hall said, “that could have been us.”
Hall and the Bears receive the A-Sun automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, its first since 1985.
Mercer and East Tennessee State are leaving the A-Sun after this season and Hoffman had much to say about the conference as a whole.
“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.”
The loss sends FGCU to the National Invitation Tournament. The Eagles will learn their NIT opponent following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on March 17. The school has put in a bid to host games in the NIT.
Assistant coaches, senior Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight watch in despair while the Eagles struggle to catch up in the last few minutes of the championship game against Mercer Sunday afternoon. The Mercer Bears attained an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with their 68-60 win over the Eagles. EN Photo | Kelli Krebs