Mercer basketball coach Bob Hoffman was eating lunch Monday when something on television grabbed his attention.
“It was a show on the top 10 upsets, all time, in NCAA tournament history,” Hoffman said. “There it was, a clip of us, No. 8 on the list. That was fun, reliving that.”
It has been two years since the Mercer Bears came into PNC Arena and became an indelible part of tournament lore. A 14th seed in 2014, the Bears were matched against third-seeded Duke as they made their first NCAA appearance since 1985.
Final score: Mercer 78, Duke 71.
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The post-game celebration almost is as memorable as the game. Senior guard Kevin Canevari led the Bears’ players in the “Nae Nae” dance” at courtside – the video quickly went viral – and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski later popped his head into the Mercer locker room to offer a few words of congratulations.
“It still seems surreal,” Canevari said Tuesday. “We were in Raleigh, in Duke’s backyard, Coach K, all the odds against us.”
Canevari, now a graduate assistant for Hoffman, grew up in the Charlotte area and helped Lake Norman High win a state title. He had been an unabashed North Carolina basketball fan, although he said his loyalty to the Tar Heels ebbed when he began his college career.
“Still, there was that rivalry with Duke,” he said.
Yes, Duke had Jabari Parker and all that talent. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here, at least we made to the Big Dance.’ And it’s one thing to be able to compete with a team and another to be able to finish it off.
Former Mercer player Kevin Canevari
Hoffman recalled that before the CBS Selection Show in 2014 he told his players they would be playing Duke in Raleigh.
“Maybe it was a premonition but I did make that prediction,” Hoffman said. “When ‘Duke’ came on the screen they all looked around at me like I was crazy.”
Hoffman laughed, adding, “I think someone said it must have been leaked.”
Good line, coach. A leaked NCAA bracket made its way online Sunday, much to the chagrin of CBS and the NCAA.
“But no one leaks anything to me, anyway,” Hoffman joked. “I’m a pretty lonely guy.”
The Bears brought more to Raleigh in 2014 than a passel of fans and the hope of an upset. Mercer had won the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament, beating the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles – who made their own splash in the 2013 NCAA tournament – for the championship. The Bears also were a senior-laden team.
“We were confident going in,” Canevari said. “If you’re going to pull an upset, there has to be that level of confidence and there has to be an actual belief you can win.
“Yes, Duke had Jabari Parker and all that talent. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here, at least we made to the Big Dance.’ And it’s one thing to be able to compete with a team and another to be able to finish it off.”
The Bears trailed by five points with less than five minutes to play. But they kept their poise, made defensive stops, hit some big shots and finished it off.
“Coach K was a class act all the way, in the way he talked to our players and about our players, and the respect he showed them and me,” Hoffman said. “That made the moment even more special.”
Mercer was beaten 83-63 by Tennessee two days later, ending their season 27-9. But a lot was learned about Hoffman, his program and the 8,300-student university in Macon, Ga., in what the coach calls “an amazing trip.”
The Bears have missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Mercer, 19-14 this season, played Coastal Carolina on Tuesday in the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
Asked about PNC Arena again hosting the NCAAs, Hoffman quickly replied, “We’d love to be going back. The NCAA tournament is where we all want to be.”
Hoffman, 58, said he has crossed paths with Krzyzewski a few times the past two years but noted, “We’ve been in the same gym recruiting, but not the same players.”
As for Canevari, he’s still recognized – and gets razzed – for the “Nae Nae,” the circle dance he said the Bears also broke into after beating Florida Gulf Coast for their league championship that year.
“And what better time to dance than in the Big Dance?” he said. “It was the kind of win that put us on the map. It should also give every other mid-major the hope that it can happen to them.”