Hundreds greet Mercer as team returns home

Mercer’s Ike Nwamu (10) recognizes the fans after losing to Tennessee Sunday evening. The Bears say their success in the NCAA Tournament energized their fan base. (Reuters)

Mercer’s Ike Nwamu (10) recognizes the fans after losing to Tennessee Sunday evening. The Bears say their success in the NCAA Tournament energized their fan base. (Reuters)

MACON — There was no disappointment outside Mercer’s University Center Monday afternoon.

Only pride and anticipation from the 300-plus who showed up to welcome the Bears men’s basketball team home.

While a 20-point loss to Tennessee in the NCAA tournament a day earlier might have demoralized many fan bases, Bears fans instead were energized.

“I’m here because I support the Bears,” Mercer sophomore Kaylee Thompson said. “They deserve our love and respect. They gave it their all.”

Thompson was one of more than 500 fans who made the trip to Raleigh, N.C., to cheer on the Bears in person. It made for a long weekend — four seven-hour bus rides in three days — and she didn’t arrive back in Macon until about 5:30 a.m. Monday.

“I’m a little bit worn out,” she said with a chuckle.

Timothy Lewis, a freshman from Macon, has attended Mercer basketball games since he was 8 years old, and this tournament run, starting with an upset of third-seeded Duke in the Blue Devils’ own backyard Friday, has been the culmination of a dream for him.

“I’m so proud of what they accomplished,” said Lewis, who also made the trip to Raleigh. “They showed the world what Mercer was all about.”

Lewis, tired and hoarse from the weekend, said Mercer also drew more than its share of fan support at the games, far beyond travelers from Middle Georgia.

“I think, for sure — all the Virginia fans, all of the North Carolina fans,” he said. “The Carolina fans were dressed in blue but they had Mercer tattoos on their cheeks. People took pictures of us in a restaurant in our Mercer stuff. By far, this has been the highlight of my short year” at Mercer.

Mercer’s brief run put a national spotlight on the 8,000-student school. Media from Atlanta came down to cover the Bears’ return Monday, while hundreds of thousands visited Mercer’s website over the weekend.

According to the university, the school’s website received 248,433 visits from Friday to Sunday, including 72,139 during Friday’s game against Duke. That compares to the 9,054 total visits the website has averaged over three-day weekends for the past six months.

For those who couldn’t make the trip to Raleigh, Mercer Village proved to be the next best thing for a party atmosphere, with more than 1,000 fans showing up Friday and Sunday to watch the Bears play on a large projection screen.

Members of the team and athletics department said they were aware of the fan support at home and how much it meant.

“It’s awesome really to come home and get the support that we have gotten after getting a lot of support in those games against Duke and Tennessee,” senior Jake Gollon said. “It was like we were playing home games in those games. Our fans have been great to us, and it was a great feeling to see that all weekend.”

Jim Cole, Mercer’s director of athletics, said the fans showed similar support in Mercer’s previous two postseason appearances under Coach Bob Hoffman, but nothing that compared to Monday’s arrival. He said the coaches and players were able to follow the fans’ support in Macon through social media.

“We can’t do this without Macon,” Cole said. “That’s what makes a big-time program. Even though we lost, all the announcers could talk about was our fans.”

Cole said a Big Ten official told him that schools in that conference need to follow Mercer’s example of busing students up for NCAA games rather than busing alumni and boosters.

The way the Bears carried themselves also was a big reason why Mercer proved to be one of the tournament darlings.

“When the guys walked out of the arena, everyone gave them a standing ovation,” Cole said.

“It’s not because they beat Duke, but because they were a class act. (The players) felt like they let us down, but all they did was make us proud.”