RALEIGH – Mercer’s seniors spent practically their entire lives believing they could play in the NCAA Tournament.
They spent four years believing they could actually earn a bid.
They spent the past year believing they, like league peer Florida Gulf Coast, could beat college basketball royalty if given the chance.
But after the No. 14 seed Bears beat third-seeded Duke, 78-71, in a Midwest Regional second-round game Friday at PNC Arena, Mercer couldn’t believe it.
“Honestly, it doesn’t even feel real, to tell you the truth,” Mercer forward Daniel Coursey said. “I – oh my God. Growing up, watching Duke and Coach K, seeing him at AAU tournaments and everyone was whispering, ‘There’s Coach K. There’s Coach K.’ I mean, I never would’ve thought we could’ve ever beat them.”
It’s real, all right.
Atlantic Sun champion Mercer (27-8) was every bit the challenger to Duke (26-9), which was upset in the second round for the second time in three years.
Mercer won the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game in its first appearance since 1985. Five Bears scored in double digits, and they shut down Duke inside the arc, holding the Blue Devils to seven field goals from two-point range.
A back-and-forth game was decided late in the fourth quarter when the Bears, trailing by five, went on an 11-0 run and took a lead they did not lose.
“They’re not just a good team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Mercer. “They’re a great team.”
In what would be a familiar sight, Duke shot just 35 percent in the first half but kept afloat with eight three-pointers, four of which came from Rasheed Sulaimon.
After five separate ties in the early stages, Duke’s Rodney Hood hit a three with 7:57 in the first half, then Amile Jefferson hit a put-back three minutes later to give Duke a seven-point lead, its biggest of the game.
An 11-3 Mercer run immediately following set the tone, and the Bears went into halftime down, 35-34.
Quinn Cook hit a three to begin the second half, but Mercer went on a 7-0 run to re-take the lead.
“(Mercer) stayed together all 40 minutes,” Cook said. “It was a game of runs, and (Mercer) stayed together.”
Duke tried exhaustively to establish Hood and Jabari Parker, but the Bears were shutting off nearly everything inside the arc.
The Blue Devils finished 15-for-37 from three-point range, but even driving the ball into the lane was a challenge.
Parker finished with 14 points. Hood had six. The two combined to shoot 6-for-24 in what likely was the last game as Blue Devils for both players.
“You know, it’s sad for them,” Krzyzewski said. “I feel badly for them because they’ve been two outstanding players for us, but they’re 6-for-24 in the game. We’re not going to win – we’re not going to win a lot of games where those kids are like that … I feel bad for them because you have – we all have – to live with that.”
Sulaimon had 20 points, and Cook led Duke with 23, including a number of shots that kept Duke in the game. His three with 9:08 remaining gave Duke a three-point lead, then his triple with 6:59 did the same thing.
But Mercer wouldn’t go away.
Jakob Gollon hit a lay-up plus a foul, Anthony White Jr. tipped in a miss and Gollon hit another lay-up to take the lead at 58-57.
Parker had a three-point play of his own, then Tyler Thornton made all three free throws after being fouled for a 6-0 Duke run as the lead changed hands again, this time, 63-58, Duke with 4:52 to go.
Mercer’s players said there was no panic on their team, which is the only program in the country to start five seniors in every game this season.
“We’re a very veteran team,” Gollon said. “When it gets tough out there, when it gets loud to call plays and stuff, we have a lot of guys that stay focused, keep everyone calm and stay collected in those heated moments.”
The Bears’ next sequence gave them a second game in the NCAA Tournament, something the school never has experienced.
On Mercer’s next five possessions, Coursey hit two shots and a free throw, White made a three, Gollon hit two free throws and Langston Hall made a free throw. Duke had three misses and two turnovers in the same window.
It was 69-63 Mercer with 53 seconds to go, and by then, the outcome was all but decided. Sulaimon scored a jumper plus the foul, but a jailbreak lay-up by White on a baseball pass from under Mercer’s basket sealed the win.
Gollon scored 20 points, and Coursey had 17 for Mercer, which will play No. 11 Tennessee in the third round Sunday.
Krzyzewski went to the Mercer locker room to congratulate the Bears, who completed the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament so far.
“I think with about 10 seconds to go when Jake was on the free-throw line, we were up six or eight, that was when it hit, like, man, we’re really about to beat Duke,” Hall said. “It’s definitely a surreal feeling, man. This is what March Madness is about, really.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached a 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org