Mercer men’s basketball
Underdog stories are built on belief, and there was no doubt among the 2014 Mercer men’s basketball team. The Bears cruised to the conference title, boasted the top mid-major conference player in the country and captured a spot in March Madness, a dream scenario for most mid-sized schools. That, however, was just the start of something that would grow bigger than themselves.
BRIAN GERRITY, executive director of the Mercer Athletic Foundation: It’s funny, that game, the way I think of it is that game is the biggest moment in Mercer history. Win or lose, that game is as big of a stage as Mercer will ever be on. Right?
ANTHONY WHITE JR, Mercer men’s basketball player: It was surreal. You’ve got to think, the only thing a lot of people in the country saw was us winning that game. They didn’t see all of the practices, all of the conditioning sessions, all of the weightlifting, all of the other stuff come into play.
JANE HEETER, Mercer journalism student: I mean, Mercer is small and that’s partly why I wanted to go there. This type of thing was what I had hoped for and what I felt like was possible going to a small school like Mercer.
This is the story of one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, told through the perspectives of players, staff members, fans and journalists who were there.
‘We can freaking do this’
The Mercer men’s basketball team’s starting five had been playing together for the better part of their collegiate careers and, even prior to its date with destiny against Duke, already had tallied an impressive resume for a mid-major school. This core group had led the Bears to a CIT Tournament Championship in 2012 and a spot in the NIT Tournament in 2013. In 2014, the senior-laden squad were able to get past conference rival – and previous March Madness darling – Florida Gulf Coast University to capture the Atlantic Sun crown and earn just the school’s third spot ever in the NCAA Men’s Tournament.
While many mid-major teams would consider a chance to go “dancing” as enough reward, the entire Mercer community was eager to achieve more, and confident they could do so.
GERRITY: They all started as freshmen and kind of grew up together and as sophomores won the CIT Tournament, going out to Utah State for a championship. Winning that championship sort of taught them a lot about how to come together as a team and play in the postseason. Then they took the next step the next year in the NIT and beat Tennessee.
HEETER: We just had this confidence – we beat Tennessee last year, we had seven seniors on this team. We just kind of knew the bracket, and (playing Duke) is where it could fall. Like, I remember vividly sitting in the student section in the arena watching the selection show and we’re all thinking ‘OK, it’s coming down to it, we’re gonna play Duke, we can freaking do this.’
WHITE JR: Going into our senior year, we had seven or eight seniors. We were older and not your typical mid-major team because we had two seven-footers at center and just a lot of experience coming back. That’s really where we gained our confidence from. Also just the work that we all put in, it was a daily thing for us. It wasn’t a fluke.
GERRITY: It was really special as a fan, a staff member or just as someone who follows Mercer basketball. It felt like we could win any game we got into.
HEETER: Probably part of it was just fueled by hating Duke.
NICOLE AUERBACH, college basketball reporter at USA Today: I actually picked that upset on my bracket that year. It was one of those deals where I was USA Today’s main college basketball reporter, so on Selection Sunday they had me do a bracket so they could post our expert brackets. I had just done a big story on the recipes for a Cinderella story, I talked to folks at Harvard and Florida Gulf Coast and all these other places that had pulled off the upset. I picked upsets, probably more than usual in my bracket, and one of the categories was ‘a veteran team’ and Mercer had seven seniors. This was the team that I wanted to go with.
GERRITY: I remember watching the local news in the hotels leading up to the game, and they’re grabbing random Duke fans off the street in the area of the arena. They’re like ‘I got things to do, but I’ll come to their next round game.’
LANGSTON HALL, Mercer player: We knew we could compete with them, and (Coach Bob Hoffman) did a great job of preparing us and letting us know that this team was a very good team, amazing team, a great team – obviously it’s Duke – but they have weaknesses, just like everyone else.
WHITE JR: Every game of our senior year was sold out. They were always there to support. When it came to the tournament, we’re playing in Raleigh, playing Duke, right down the road, and we have more fans than they did. That just speaks to what the administration wanted for us and the students.
HEETER: There was a small section downstairs that Mercer bought seats for, and it was 25 bucks for us to go. … People would pass those tickets up to us in the third in the top tier so we could use it to come back down, even though we technically didn’t have a seat, but we were filling the section. We were so loud. They’re leading us in that ‘I believe that we will win’ chant, and I think people are looking at us wondering ‘who are these people’ or ‘where is Mercer because they really turned out.’
AUERBACH: I remember being at a hospitality suite, watching the Thursday night games, and saying ‘I think we’re going to get the crazy day (on Friday).’
GERRITY: I’m looking at the Duke team warming up – in front of Mercer warming up on our end – and they’re going through a layup line. Jabari Parker was on that Duke team and he’d come through the line, and I was like ‘oh my God, that guy is a beast. We have no one that can guard that guy.’ Just an eye test alone and I’m sitting here like, oh crap, this is gonna be an interesting one.
HEETER: I had a conversation with my internship supervisor at GPB who was not somebody who knew sports at all before we left, and he was like ‘do you think they can do this?’ I just remember saying ‘yes, be prepared for me to file something from the road because they’re gonna do it.’
‘We have that poise’
Despite Duke’s pedigree as one of college basketball’s bluebloods, the Bears sought to start the game quickly and put the vaunted Blue Devils on notice early. That said, the nerves were very real as the underdog Bears took the court. With future NBA players Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood in the lineup for the Blue Devils and the legendary Mike Krzyzewski on the bench, it arguably was a daunting task.
The question on everyone’s mind was would that pregame confidence translate into in-game poise?
GERRITY: We win the tip, Anthony White gets like a streaking look at a fastbreak layup right off the tip and he blows it, misses the layup. I mean, he makes that with his eyes closed but at that time he missed it. I’m like ‘oh, crap.’
WHITE JR: I ain’t going to lie, it was disappointing.
HALL: You know you’re playing Duke, you’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. The game kind of starts and there’s a lot of emotion – how do you battle through that and kind of get into a place where you can control the pace of play and play the game you want to play?
GERRITY: We get the ball back, shoot it up the court to Anthony on the way, and he pulls up on a fast break for wide open three and makes it.
WHITE JR: There were a little nerves in it, but then coming down and hitting the shot the next possession, for the entire team it lifted the weight from our shoulders and (we were) like ‘alright, let’s go play basketball.’
GERRITY: When he hit that, I was like, okay, he is not rattled. We have that poise, we’re ok. When he hit that three — did I know we’d win, no, but I knew we’d be okay when he hit that three.
HALL: You’re still nervous, but after you make a shot and see the ball go through the hoop, you think ‘OK, it’s just basketball.’
GERRITY: Athleticism versus that Mercer team didn’t really matter because they knew how to control the pace of the game. They had really good quick hitting plays that would get you open shots.
AUERBACH: It was the peak of the era of one-and-done players – a lot of talent, but (Duke) was not as cohesive as a group of older veterans that a mid-major team can be. I remember they were super disjointed offensively, and the size of Mercer really bothered them, which is super strange because usually in those types of matchups the power conference team would be the one with the size advantage.
HALL: We kind of got them out of transition and made them into a more of a half-court team and made them into only a three-point shooting team.
GERRITY: When I think of a special player, I think of Langston. He could dominate a game and have only, like, eight points. And you’re like this kid just destroyed everybody and has eight points.
HALL: We knew if we made them into only a three-point shooting team and kind of took Jabari out of the paint, because he was obviously a monster, and made these guys shoot more than we would have a chance.
‘We’re here now, we might as well go get it done’
Mercer trailed 35-34 at the half, having survived a barrage of three-pointers from Duke that would continue throughout the second half. Though the Blue Devils struggled from the field, they connected on 15 three-pointers in the game, shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc to offset their other shooting woes.
The Bears were spreading the ball around efficiently and shooting nearly 60 percent on their field goals, enabling the game to remain evenly matched throughout the second half. As the game shifted to crunch time, dipping below the 10-minute mark, the confidence level for Mercer began to rise.
WHITE JR: You have to think, we have nothing to lose. At the end of the day you just have to put some game pressure on the other team.
HALL: We’re in a situation of a close game, a big game, and our guys have been through it before. We know what everybody wants to do, what everybody’s strengths are, and what everybody’s weaknesses are on our team.
AUERBACH: You could just feel the whole building shift. I talked to some of the players and coaches of those upsets about how that feels. You feel it and you also feel that the favorite is puckering as well, and that was very palpable during the game. It was Virginia fans who came early for the session, and it didn’t feel like you were that close to Duke, but you actually were. The whole arena swells for the underdog and you could feel it.
GERRITY: The arena was a very pro-Mercer arena. And the feeling in there, the energy and the buzz of that arena was pro Mercer. I think that helped a lot. The team felt supported, the team felt we’re in a battle — this is no different than the Florida Gulf Coast College battle that we were in the week before. You knew our guys would not get rattled and flustered down the stretch of the game because of the past three years of experience that they had leading up to it.
AUERBACH: I remember how many easy buckets in the paint there were for Mercer. Everytime Duke seemed to get something going, it felt like there always was an answer.
That experience drove the team’s composure. Trailing 63-60, White Jr. hit a three-pointer to tie the game up with under three minutes to play.
WHITE JR: I hit the three and, you know, we call a timeout right after that, and it’s like let’s go out and win, you know what I mean? Like we’re here now, we might as well go get it done.
After White Jr. tied the game, Mercer took control of the contest. Parker missed a three from the top of the key and the Bears rattled off six straight points to take a 68-63 lead after Daniel Coursey converted a layup and-one. Still, despite there being barely a minute left in the game, it felt like an eternity for upset-minded Mercer given the offensive firepower of the Blue Devils.
HALL: Honestly, it felt like it took an hour to get there. You have the lead against a big team like that. You’re, like, ‘man, this clock is starting to really wind down pretty slow; it’s only been 10 seconds; like, come on.’
HEETER: I think if you go back and look at my tweets from that time – which please don’t, they’re very embarrassing – but it was just a series of ‘I’m vomiting’ or ‘ I’m gonna vomit’ or ‘I’m dying.’ Because just the pressure of every single play was so much.
WHITE JR: I honestly don’t think in that second half there were any nerves just because we had gone through the whole game. I think our whole focus was just taking it one possession at a time, making the right play and trying to come out with a win.
Duke pulled within a possession after a three-pointer by Hood, but Bud Thomas found a streaking White Jr. who broke the Blue Devils’ full-court press to give Mercer a bit of a cushion. After that play, the Bears trotted to the foul line a few times to seal the deal.
WHITE JR: That pass – we work on that almost every day at practice. It’s almost like you go through all of your options, and me and Bud, every time we worked on press break, worked on that as one of our options. Getting a chance to actually complete it and it mean a lot in a big game was kind of a fruits of labor type of situation.
HALL: (Knowing we were going to win) didn’t really happen for me until (Jakob Gollon) was on the free throw line. I think they had like, you know a foul at the end to try to stop the clock, they fouled us. I think we were up about I think like six or seven.
HEETER: We felt like we’d win but you felt like – I think I can speak for the other people who were there as students – as long as we concentrated and were screaming, we could help them get there. And it felt like that happened.
HALL: I looked at – I can’t remember who I looked at, maybe it was Bud – and I was like man, we just kind of smiled at each other. He was like ‘no, it’s not done yet, it’s not done yet.’ We didn’t want to jinx it but it was like man, that was the time where I was like man, we really did this – we really beat Duke.
‘You have the attention of every media outlet on earth’
Winning was only the beginning for Mercer, as the Bears had just completed one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history. While there was plenty of celebration to be had in its immediate aftermath, the tiny school from Macon was blanketed with media attention. Every outlet from ESPN to CBS wanted a chance to share their take on the latest Cinderella story with the world.
GERRITY: Well, we beat Duke, game ends, Andy (Stabell, Mercer’s Sports Information Director) calls me, and he’s freaking out. He says ‘my email is unmanageable, my phone is nonstop, so where can we set up?’ I told him that I had a suite, and let’s turn that into a sort of war room.
HEETER: I think we took some pictures outside the stadium or the arena, but I’m basically on my phone on, like, a Google Doc trying to type up a script and then figure out how to record it and send basically these audio pieces back to GPB to piece together to basically pitch it to NPR.
GERRITY: So he comes in, sits down and opens up his email, and there’s hundreds of emails coming in. I mean it’s crazy. Like ding, ding ding, nonstop. And he’s looking through and it’s like, okay, you have the attention of every media outlet on earth. Like what do you do?
HEETER: (My supervisor) was like ‘I know this is yours, you were there in person and you would kind of have to pitch it to them.’
GERRITY: And Andy, I’ll never forget, he looks at me this is after, like, 50 straight emails, he just slammed his hand on the table and he goes ‘national media only from here on out.’ The next few hours, he’s just picking and choosing which outlets to respond to, who to grant an interview for Hoffman to, and it was just awesome to watch.
HALL: I mean, that was a crazy experience because before that, you know, we didn’t get too much media attention. We’re a small school. Obviously, we had local media attention, and I kind of knew some of the guys at TNT because my old AAU coach works there. So you know, I would, you know, talk to them every now and then, but nothing like getting all this media attention.
HEETER: I tried recording the audio in the back of the bus, in the bathroom on the charter bus. I send him the file, and he’s like it’s too loud. I’m like OK fine, thankfully we’re stopping to get something to eat.
GERRITY: It dawns on (Stabell) ‘oh crap, I’ve got to update and print the entire media guide for the next game.’ So we’re sitting in the room and these things are like 100 pages, it’s not like a two-page media brief, it’s a thick book.
HEETER: I went behind a dumpster behind a Taco Bell, recording my little spot and my final line was like something about Jabari Parker and how his extraordinary season is now over. I had to record this, and I’m staring at my phone with an external battery, staring at my script.
GERRITY: We find a 24-hour Kinkos or FedEx or whatever it was and go in there. You can see the dude is half asleep and wondering what do these guys want? We tell him we need 50 copies in full color of this 100-page booklet, and the guy’s like ‘I could have it like next week’ and we’re like ‘no, we’ll wait.’
HEETER: I get back on the bus and they’re like ‘did you do it?’ I’m like ‘yes,’ and we celebrate that. It was amazing. It’s one of the highlights of my journalism career.
GERRITY: It’s the middle of the night, Raleigh N.C., and we’re at a FedEx waiting for this thing to get printed. The guy’s out here cursing ‘now, seriously, like you’re kidding me.’
HALL: I remember having hundreds of messages. I was, like, ‘oh my goodness, my social media is going crazy.’ It was unbelievable.
AUERBACH: They were celebrating in the locker room, and I actually showed a couple of the players on my phone that I had picked them. They were shocked!
WHITE JR: When we got to the locker room, obviously we celebrated and stuff, but you try to take it all in and you’ve got to think ‘we play again in two days.’
‘Come to Chapel Hill anytime, everything’s free’
The victory elevated the Mercer men’s basketball team into the national discourse. According to data shared by the school, the total visits to its website that weekend were 248,433. For context, the average monthly visits at the time were 126,880. Data from Meltwater, an online media monitoring company, found that there were 5,134 different news items published by 1,025 sources once you combined the search terms “Mercer” and “Bears” from March 21-24.
Though the Bears would fall to Tennessee in the second round that year, Mercer’s victory remains one of the most famous upsets in NCAA Men’s Tournament history. It captured the ESPY Award for Best Upset, and has given countless Mercer graduates enormous street cred in places like Chapel Hill, N.C. Gerrity recalled getting an envelope full of unsolicited donations from North Carolina fans in the wake of the victory.
HALL: I mean, honestly, it was some of the best times of my life because college is more like a family environment. Like you live together. You’re always together, go to a class together, you know, and practice together. Everything is more family oriented.
HEETER: It’s just, I mean, it was kind of surreal. It was probably the most intense in-person sporting event that I’ve been to, other than when the Atlanta Braves lost the wildcard game to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 – a whole different feeling.
HALL: When I first got overseas, the first couple of years, people always asked ‘what school did you go to?’ I would tell them Mercer, and they’d be like ‘you were on that team that beat Duke.’ That would always be the first thing people would say or, you know, I watched that game or I remember that game.
GERRITY: We played at North Carolina in football (in 2019), and I had a pregame mingle at that football game. Jakob Gollon came, and I grabbed the bartender at whatever random bar it was and said ‘you see that guy, he was on the team that beat Duke.’ The bartender immediately started ringing the bell at the bar and said ‘this guy drinks for free the rest of the day.’ This is years later – it isn’t the next day, it’s years later.
HALL: North Carolina fans, they were probably the happiest people after the game, maybe more happy than us. They were like ‘come to Chapel Hill anytime, everything’s free!’
WHITE JR: Sheesh, that’s hard to not say it’s my number one memory if I’m being honest. I think obviously, signing a pro contract, playing in Australia was pretty cool, but to do something that big with my brothers and the guys that I did so many other things with was awesome, so it has to rank number one.
HALL: Being able to experience that with my brothers and having lifelong friends – we still have group chats to this day, and it’s been nine years since we graduated – that’s really special. I’ll definitely never, never ever forget that.
Where are they now
Langton Hall, who won the Lou Henson Award his senior season recognizing him as the top mid-major conference player in the country, has played overseas since graduating. Currently, he is a member of Bahcesehir Koleji in Turkey.
Anthony White Jr. is an assistant coach with Charleston Southern after previous stints at Ferrum College and Earlham College.
Brian Gerrity is a Deputy Athletic Director at Mercer and the executive director of the Mercer Athletic Foundation.
Jane Heeter worked in daily journalism for nearly five years after graduating from Mercer. Today she is the associate director of communications for Holton-Arms School in Maryland.
Nicole Auerbach covers college football for The Athletic and is a studio analyst for the Big Ten Network. In 2020, she won the prestigious National Sports Writer of the Year honor from the National Sports Media Association.Enjoy our oral histories? Take a look at the story of NCAA Gymnastics’ only perfect 40 or the best game that only some saw.: Mercer Men’s Basketball: Ever Confident