RALEIGH, N.C. — According to Ken Pomeroy, 14-seed Mercer is the fifth-most experienced team in the country. Those are always some of the sexier upset picks when filling out NCAA tournament brackets — after all, experienced teams are often facing more talented (but younger) opponents.
And certainly, no one thought a third-seeded Duke team (26-9) with NBA-level talent on its roster could lose to a Mercer team that had never won an NCAA tournament game before. But here we are, a few crumpled-up brackets and broken hearts later, and Duke is making the short drive back to Durham while the Mercer Bears, the champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, play on.
"It’s a testament to the type of environment that (coach Bob) Hoffman has brought to the program," sophomore Ike Nwamu said following his team’s 78-71 win. "It’s all about the team and that definitely showed today."
It did. Mercer (27-8) was never flustered, even as Duke started off draining seven of its first 14 3-point attempts in the first 12 minutes of play. Or when Duke went up by five points with under five minutes to go.
"Our coaches got us in the huddle and told us to keep battling and stay to our principles and try to contest everything," Mercer’s Kevin Canevari said. "We stuck to our game plan. We knew this game was going to be a grind and a tough game on both ends of the court. We were confident coming into the game."
Mercer responded with an 11-0 run, continuing to force Duke into bad shots by switching defenses while hitting clutch shots on the other end.
Mercer vowed as a team last year that it would get back to this point. The Bears won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title last season, only to fall to last year’s Cinderella darlings, Florida Gulf Coast, on their way to the automatic bid. This senior-laden group was not going to let that happen. And neither were their fans, who had an excellent showing and were loud from beginning to end in Raleigh.
With five seconds to go, Mercer fans (and, let’s face it, fans of every team that’s not Duke) knew a victory was imminent and rose as one to cheer. Duke had fouled Jakob Gollon, even though there was nothing the Blue Devils could do at that point, down by eight. Mercer point guard Langston Hall embraced senior Bud Thomas, patting him on the back of the head. As Hall moved to junior Darious Moten, you could see the moment sink in for everyone on the court.
"Everybody was smiling, but it’s like we have to get to the last 10 seconds," Hall said. "It’s definitely a surreal feeling, man. This is what March Madness is all about, really." (GIF via SBNation).
Unless, of course, you’re on the flip side of that.
Hall, Thomas and Moten shared their moment right in front of Duke senior Tyler Thornton, who stared vacantly ahead, seeing but not seeing. Stunned.
At the beginning of the season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that his team would be built around its best two players, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. In the end, it ultimately collapsed around them. Hood and Parker combined to shoot 6-of-24 from the floor (2-of-8 from long range) and scored just 20 points, not to mention combining for nine fouls and seven turnovers.
"We’re not going to win a lot of games where those kids are like that," Krzyzewski said of the bad shooting performance by his main duo. "We’ve won a lot of games where they’ve been terrific and I’ve loved coaching them, because you have — we all have to live with that."
When it worked well, Duke was a machine. But it didn’t often work as well as many (including the Blue Devils) thought it could, or should. Parker spoke to reporters in short, staccato, one-word sentences, repeating things for emphasis, all with his eyes downcast. A potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, the next level was the farthest thing from Parker’s mind in the aftermath.
"They didn’t look at what was written on paper. They just went out and played."
When asked what happened with his shooting — he finished 4-of-14 from the floor, though he was 6-of-7 from the foul line — he could only shake his head.
"Just didn’t fall in," Parker said. "I could’ve did a better job, a way better job."
Hood sat tapping his feet rapidly with his hands covering his face for a long time before a reporter approached him.
"It’s my worst nightmare," Hood said, barely audible.
Red-eyed Quinn Cook returned to the locker room from the postgame press conference just minutes after he’d left. He embraced graduate student Andre Dawkins, who is out of eligibility now for the Blue Devils, for a long time. Dawkins whispered encouragement to the rising senior, who nearly won the game for Duke on his own with 23 points. To Dawkins, the issue wasn’t Duke settling for shots. The issue was that Duke’s opponents didn’t have to settle.
"Offense wasn’t the issue. For the most part in our losses, offense hasn’t been the issue. It’s been getting stops," Dawkins said. "Just disappointing that we weren’t able to put together a good defensive game when shots weren’t falling."
Duke’s offense affected its defense seemingly all season, as it couldn’t seem to maintain focus on its own end of the court if its shots weren’t going in. And sometimes even if they are.
Krzyzewski thinks part of that problem was his team’s youth.
"Those swings that we have sometimes produced losses and today, they produced a loss," Krzyzewski said.
But it’s twice in the last three years now, Duke has fallen to a lower seed — first to No. 15 Lehigh in 2012, then again this year to a No. 14 seed.
Cook understands the losses aren’t up to the program’s standards.
"I don’t really want to get into that. I just think at Duke, it’s the tradition that Coach K has built over the years. It’s been championships, Final Fours," Cook said. "I don’t want to say we failed because we had some great moments this year and we all grew up this year and we stayed together. It hurts, but we’ve got to kind of move on."
As he spoke in the locker room, though, it was almost as if he couldn’t hear the sounds from an excited locker room within ear shot: Tennessee players getting ready to run on the court for pre game warmups before the most important game of their lives.