As the final minutes ticked off Mercer's 78-71 upset of Duke on Friday in the NCAA tournament, a small crowd gathered around the television in the offices of the Southern Conference in Spartanburg.
It's fair to say SoCon officials were rooting for the underdog Bears. After all, Mercer will be in the SoCon next season.
"We had several people glued to the TV most of the afternoon," said Geoff Cabe, the SoCon's senior associate commissioner. "Obviously, a fantastic win for Mercer . We think of them as family already."
Mercer University, a private school of about 8,300 students in Macon, Ga., will join the SoCon on July 1 for the 2014-15 academic year along with VMI and East Tennessee State.
Those are the three schools the SoCon invited to join after losing College of Charleston and Elon to the Colonial Athletic Association, Davidson to the Atlantic 10, and Georgia Southern and Appalachian State to the Sun Belt Conference.
There was much hand-wringing about the future of SoCon basketball after the losses of Davidson and College of Charleston. That future doesn't look quite so grim today with the success of the incoming members, led by Mercer, which won the Atlantic Sun title this season.
ETSU, also in the A-Sun, and VMI of the Big South also are playing postseason basketball. Both teams won first-round games in the College Insider Tournament.
That means of the 10 members lined up to play in the SoCon next year, five were in the postseason this season: Wofford and Mercer in the NCAAs, and Chattanooga, VMI and ETSU in the CIT.
"We think the future looks very good in basketball," Cabe said. "I think we have some programs that have turned the corner and are on the rise."
As it became apparent the SoCon would have to replace departing members, Mercer quickly rose to the top of the list. The private school has its own law school, and has been successful in basketball and baseball in recent years.
Mercer has Lowcountry connections, as well. Tyre Moore of Academic Magnet High School and Demetre Rivers of Stratford have signed letters of intent to play for the basketball team next season. Former Wando High standout Christina Glover is an assistant volleyball coach.
The Bears also have started a football program, with former Furman coach Bobby Lamb as head coach. Mercer went 10-2 last season in the program's first year, and will play a full SoCon slate in 2014.
VMI, led by former South Carolina football coach Sparky Woods, also will play a SoCon schedule in 2014. ETSU, re-starting a football program that was disbanded in 2003, is scheduled to play in the SoCon in 2015 under former North Carolina coach Carl Torbush.
"Very early in the process, we saw Mercer as a potential member that would fit well," Cabe said. "Geographically, they were a good fit to replace Georgia Southern in the state of Georgia, and they are close to Chattanooga and Samford. Competitively and academically, they were an outstanding fit."
Wofford, a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament this year, put up a brave effort in its 57-40 loss to No. 2 Michigan.
But No. 14 Mercer's win over No. 3 Duke - just the 18th time a 14 has beaten a 3, and the fifth time since 2005 - was a shot in the arm the SoCon needed.
"Technically, they are still in the A-Sun," Cabe said. "But it felt like it was our team out there."
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