published Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

SoCon-bound Bears eyeing 14-seed history

RALEIGH, N.C. — Mercer's Jakob Gollon used his hands to apply air quotes of sarcasm as he said the word "upset" during the 14th-seeded team's news conference inside PNC Arena on Saturday afternoon.

That's what the Bears did to Duke in a surprising 78-71 win in the NCAA tournament on Friday, and they're fine with whatever it's called.

There's no debating this, though: If Mercer continues its run by knocking off Tennessee tonight, the Bears will become the first No. 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16 since the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga beat Georgia and Illinois in 1997.

"Every time there's an upset in March," said Gollon, one of seven seniors who scored 20 points in the win against the Blue Devils, "people tend to call it a Cinderella story. But we know how good we are, and in the past couple of years we've beaten a lot of high-major teams, so we expect to win a lot of these games."

"In our own eyes, we're not [Cinderella], but we're not going to be upset if that's what the media wants to call it."

The Atlantic Sun Conference champion -- and soon-to-be Southern Conference member -- is the lowest remaining seed in the NCAA tournament after becoming just the 18th No. 14 seed to beat a No. 3 seed, but Cleveland (Ohio) State in 1986 and the Mocs in 1997 were the only two 14 seeds to win their next games.

Mercer would be, though, the second team from the Atlantic Sun in as many tournaments to reach the Sweet 16 after Florida Gulf Coast, or "Dunk City" as the Eagles became known during their run as a No. 15 seed, beat Georgetown and San Diego State last season.

"We heard Coach K," Gollon said, referencing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "One of the things he pointed out after the game was that they definitely didn't overlook us, either. There was a lot of talk of us being a good team going into the tournament, so I don't think anyone has taken us lightly, especially after what happened with Gulf Coast last year."

Next year, Mercer, along with VMI and East Tennessee State, will join the SoCon, which recently has lost Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Elon, College of Charleston and Davidson to other leagues.

"It's a storied conference, great teams," said Bob Hoffman, Mercer's coach since 2008. "A lot of good teams are moving that we would have been playing against. We've played a lot of teams in the past. The great thing about that league is there's multiple teams that look like us, as far as institutions, private schools, faith-based, close by, closer to get even better rivalries.

"Then you throw the football element in that we're going into, and I think it makes perfect sense."

The Bears won't sneak up on Tennessee after they ended the Vols' season last year in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

"We were thrilled to win that game, no doubt about it," Hoffman said. "And it's something we continue to talk about whenever anybody asks us. We're happy to talk about that we won that first-round game in the NIT on Tennessee's floor.

"But when it comes to tomorrow, with the confidence they're playing with and how good they've played in the last three weeks, I mean, [Vols coach Cuonzo Martin's] done an amazing job. They are playing at a high level. They just look like a very confident team, so we know we've got our work cut out for tomorrow."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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