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Thursday May 26th, 2016 10:45PM

Mercer in NCAA tourney for 1st time since 1985

By The Associated Press
MACON -- The Mercer Bears don't know what the NCAA tournament selection committee has in store for them.<br /> <br /> Either way, Langston Hall says Mercer is already a winner.<br /> <br /> That's because Hall, the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year, joined four other senior starters in leading the Bears to their first NCAA bid since 1985.<br /> <br /> "We just have to think about the big picture," Hall said. "If we lose the next game, we will have had a good season, but if we keep it going and keep winning, it will be a special season and really great season."<br /> <br /> Excitement is building in Macon, where Mercer will host a campus event Sunday to celebrate the season and watch the 6 p.m. selection show.<br /> <br /> The Bears (26-8) are hoping for a No. 13 or 14 seed, but sixth-year senior forward Jakob Gollon says they won't mind being farther down the bracket. He believes a victory last week at Florida Gulf Coast proves that Mercer is ready to play on a national stage.<br /> <br /> "We knew it was going to be really tough environment to play in, but with our game style, we've got guys that have hit big shots throughout their career," Gollon said. "We knew we had the ability to quiet the crowd if we make a big run."<br /> <br /> Florida Gulf Coast ended the Bears' season last year on their home court and went on to create a national buzz with a run to the Sweet Sixteen.<br /> <br /> Then last month, Mercer endured a loss at Florida Gulf Coast that caused even more reflection as the defeat cost the Bears the Atlantic Sun's No. 1 seed.<br /> <br /> But fast forward to March 6 after surviving a gut check in an A-Sun semifinal on their home floor as the Bears needed double overtime to beat South Carolina-Upstate.<br /> <br /> Three days later, they were cutting down the nets at Florida Gulf Coast.<br /> <br /> "Gulf Coast put us out of the tournament the last two years, and we hadn't won there since the year before," Hall said. "So it was definitely special to get a win there, just to quiet a crowd like that and it being in the championship game, it was even sweeter."<br /> <br /> Mercer's return to the NCAA field has taken six seasons under coach Bob Hoffman, but nobody expected the journey to be easy.<br /> <br /> Hoffman, now in his 23rd season as a head coach, had a considerable sales job to get Macon excited about his program.<br /> <br /> "We were averaging 700 (fans) a game when I came here," Hoffman said. "Now we're averaging 2,800. That's been a hard sell because we've had to do it every day, but it's the most important thing. You have to sell the community first and then when you get people in the stands, that's how you get recruits. They can see a vision of what we can do. Sure enough, we have."<br /> <br /> A 77-31 record over the last three years has helped tremendously. Hoffman has coached the Bears to wins over high-majors Auburn, Alabama twice, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Mississippi and Seton Hall, and Mercer upset Tennessee last year in the first round of the NIT in Knoxville.<br /> <br /> Hoffman credits his senior class with much of this season's success.<br /> <br /> Hall is the only Atlantic Sun player with at least 1,500 career points and 600 assists. Center Daniel Coursey averages 9.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Gollon, the A-Sun scholar-athlete of the year, averaged 7.8 points.<br /> <br /> Guards Bud Thomas and Anthony White Jr. combined to average 17.4 points and 6.7 assists.<br /> <br /> Monty Brown and Kevin Canevari round out the senior class.<br /> <br /> "You look at what they've accomplished on the floor and off the floor," Hoffman said. "They're all going to graduate with over a 3.0 (grade-point average) in all kinds of good fields and how the way they go about their daily business and treat people, it's the epitome of what you put in in the definition of student-athlete. These guys are it. I'm blessed to be their coach.
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