Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bears Seniors Saunter Into Next Step of Journey

For two consecutive seasons, Mercer men’s basketball let opportunities to celebrate winning the A-Sun Championship and claiming the A-Sun’s NCAA Tournament berth on its home floor slip away. 

Those slips included a loss last season to eventual Sweet 16 participant FGCU after claiming the A-Sun’s regular season title and earning the No. 1 seed as host. 

Before today, it has also been 29 years since the Bears participated in the NCAA Tournament, the last in 1985. That drought is also now over. 

There was no slip-up today, as the Mercer victory on the road in Dunk City in front of a raucos, standing room only crowd will be special for many reasons to Mercer faithful. For a group of seven seniors, however, the journey is not complete. 

To every Bear certainly this win is special. But ask seniors Kevin Canevari, Langston Hall, Bud Thomas, Daniel Coursey, Anthony White Jr., Monty Brown and Jakob Gollon what this win means, and you get an even deeper explanation of its meaning. 

"For our seven seniors, we have this long storied history with three winningest seasons in school history, the CIT title and last year’s NIT win, but the one thing we didn’t have was an NCAA berth." Jakob Gollon said. "We thought last year was our year on our home court. We knew coming back into this arena and atmosphere would be a great chance for us. For me I think it is a great last chapter to be written in our story."

Mercer is one of the few teams in the country to typically have five seniors in its starting lineup, and four of them have been regular starters since their sophomore seasons. They are led by the 2014 A-Sun Player of the Year Langston Hall, who became the A-Sun’s career leader in assists in Thursday’s double-overtime win against USC Upstate.  

Hall is one leader in the group of seven who continue to make their mark and extend the most successful span in Mercer program history. Propelled by this group, the Bears have won 91 games in the last four years, including three straight seasons of 20+ wins, along with claiming at least a share of two regular season titles. Two years ago Mercer claimed the 2012 CIT title, and last season they knocked off the SEC’s Tennessee Volunteers in the NIT before falling to Brigham Young in the second round. No doubt they are ready for this trip to the NCAA. 

"Last year, I said that I thought FGCU could go in and win games in the NCAA Tournament and we would have done the same if we had won," Mercer's Head Coach Bob Hoffman remarked. "I just felt really good about our team and I think the same thing is going to happen this year. We are going to come ready to play in the NCAA."

This season Mercer relied heavily on its experience as the Bears did not shy away from difficult non-conference tests, giving them mixed results prior to conference play. The Bears played at Texas and Oklahoma, dropping both but only falling only by three to the Longhorns. Mercer rebounded and claimed nice non-conference wins including a triple-overtime win at Valparaiso and a three-point win at Ole Miss. 

There is no shortage of individual talent among this group. Hall, Thomas and Coursey each have tallied more than 1,000 points in their career, and Coursey led the A-Sun’s top defense as the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year. Gollon also topped the conference in academics, earning membership to the A-Sun Academic All-Conference team and Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors. White has also scored 42 points in the Bears’ last two games, including 29 against Jacksonville in the quarterfinal. 

As you would imagine the group is a tight-knit one, one that truly cares for each other. Prior to the final regular season game against Jacksonville, Hall and Coursey both approached Head Coach Bob Hoffman and asked that two senior teammates who don’t receive as much playing time get the starts. Hoffman agreed, and Canevari started for Hall and Brown for Coursey. The Bears won the game and clinched a share of the 2014 regular season title with defending champ FGCU. 

Even with the results, Hall admits that the journey has not always been a smooth one for him or this group of leaders. They, like all young players, have matured and grown together. He says they have positively impacted the program, and each senior’s contribution is why he says they are where they are today. 

“I think we brought something new to Mercer, playing as a team, because we didn’t always have the most talented team out there,” said Hall. 

“We learned that quickly, as we didn’t have a good freshman year. In our sophomore year that made us come together, play more as a team and put more emphasis on defense. We had to listen to the coaching staff a lot more, because we tried to do it our way and we lost a lot of games that way. When we started doing it their way, we really started putting things together and came together as a team. 

No doubt that this senior-laden Bears team has it together, as now they will collectively saunter into NCAA March Madness together.  

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