Belmont Coach Rick Byrd had a vested interest in watching 14-seed Mercer upset 3-seed Duke in the NCAA Tournament Friday.
Not only was Belmont in the Atlantic Sun Conference with Mercer prior to moving to the OVC, his Bruins had been in a comparable situation of trying to shock the world by upsetting the Blue Devils in the Big Dance.
It was 2008 in Washington, D.C.'s first round regional game. Duke was a 2-seed and Belmont a 15-seed. It went down to the wire, with Duke escaping, 71-70.
For Byrd, it was déjà vu.
“It was so similar to our game (against Duke). Watching that game down the stretch,'' Byrd recalled. “They finished better than we did.''
Byrd said Mercer's win was no fluke.
“If you didn't know anything about either one of them, I thought Mercer looked like the better team,'' he said. “They are so experienced and Bob (Hoffman) is a really great coach.''
This year the Bruins are in the NIT, having lost to Eastern Kentucky in the OVC championship game. The Colonels grabbed the OVC's automatic bid.
The announced attendance Friday night at the Curb Event Center was 2,567, below capacity. Belmont has had sellout crowds before, but I'm not sure the decibel level ever reached what it did in the game against Robert Morris.
“I can't remember really a more exciting night in any facility that we've had,'' Byrd said after advancing with a 82-71 win over a depleted Robert Morris team that had only seven players.
“It was electric. Our students turned out terrific, fired up and there early. We've had some great nights, even back to the NAIA days, but I can't remember a crowd that was as more into it and a more fun atmosphere than we had in this game.''
It's unusual for a team and its fans to get that geeked up for an NIT game. But Belmont was the exception. They put the loss against Eastern Kentucky in their rear view mirror.
“We are totally over it now,'' said senior J.J. Mann, who wants to leave the Bruins on a winning note. “We're in the thick of it and the crowd really helped a lot. We wanted to play for them.''
Mann did his part in making sure his career would not conclude against Robert Morris.
He led all scorers with 25 points, four of them from beyond the 3-point line. Mann also had six rebounds, three steals and two assists.
Mann put up eight points in a 14-0 run to give the Bruins some breathing room against an active, physical Robert Morris team.
Byrd knows his team has a goal of getting to play in Madison Square Garden in the semifinals and finals. He sensed no letdown about playing in the NIT and neither did the crowd.
“I think it's post-season basketball,'' Byrd said. “It may not be the NCAA, but it's certainly the next thing to it. It was a big game and it mattered. It was on TV and everybody in the world wants to get on TV, so they showed up.
“Some of them showed up for that reason alone. Some of them dressed kind of funny.''
Notice how many times the word “fun'' crops up in the Bruins' conversation?
If they can defeat the winner of the Illinois-Clemson game, they will be on their way to the Big Apple.
“Playing in Madison Square Garden is our ultimate game, which would be awesome,'' Mann said.
“There's nothing to be ashamed of to be in the NIT at all.''
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.