RALEIGH – It was an abrupt end for Duke but not a totally shocking one.
Duke improved rapidly throughout this season but it still was young. It was a talented team but it was susceptible to match-ups, a team with a high ceiling but an unpredictable nature.
In No. 14 seed Mercer, Duke received about the worst possible for scenario, at least for a No. 3 seed playing close to home.
The veteran Bears were deep, disciplined and physical, dictating the game to their wishes and beating Duke, 78-71, on Friday at PNC Arena.
A Duke team led by two stars who never had played in the NCAA Tournament before Friday was beaten in the game’s crucial stages, just as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had warned Thursday.
“There are teams who are seeded in double digits in this tournament that can give any team, in that one shot, a run for its money and beat them,” Krzyzewski said Thursday. “That wasn’t the case a decade ago. It was the exception. Now, it’s the norm because of the age difference, the experience of playing together, all those things.”
Mercer has seven seniors, six of whom came to Mercer directly from high school. Seven Bears have played in more than 100 college games, while Duke’s two best players, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, both were in their first seasons playing for the Blue Devils.
The two were held virtually silent by a big Mercer team, shooting a combined 6-for-24 from the field with 20 combined points.
“Well, they’re men. They’re strong,” Krzyzewski said of Mercer. “And our inside guys were young at times. … Those swings that we have sometimes produced losses, and (Friday), they produced a loss.”
To Krzyzewski’s point, the Blue Devils also struggled away from home, oftentimes characteristic of young teams. Duke won all 17 of its home games but went 9-9 away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mercer didn’t wilt at any point of Friday’s second-round game, scoring on five possessions in a row after falling behind by five late. Duke failed to score on any of its five response possessions, which created an 11-0 Mercer run that proved to be key.
Duke made seven two-point field goals in 40 minutes and was forced into a game where it shot 37 three-pointers out of necessity.
When asked what Mercer had that Duke didn’t, Blue Devils guard Tyler Thornton complimented Mercer’s commitment to itself.
“They were very confident. They didn’t panic,” Thornton said. “They were very poised and they just stuck with their game plan on both ends of the floor during that period.”
The game likely was the final one for both Hood and Parker, both of whom are expected to declare for the NBA Draft.
Parker was noncommittal, saying the decision “is something me and coach will have to talk about.”
In many ways, Duke was uncharacteristic of Krzyzewski’s typical teams, who often are adept man-to-man teams with well-balanced offenses.
Without a true center, Parker and undersized forward Amile Jefferson were forced to be post players, and Duke’s defense was ranked ninth in the ACC.
With a somewhat fragile balance, it just didn’t happen for Duke on Friday.
“We never know exactly what we want from our group because of the youth, and, I mean we would have rather had Jabari and Rodney getting 20 apiece,” Krzyzewski said. “And no threes from them. You know, but … it didn’t work out that way.”
But at the core of Duke’s season-ending loss though, was a very good mid-major team playing very well, something for which Krzyzewski applauded Mercer.
“I love the game and when the game’s played really well,” Krzyzewski said. “I hope it’s us that’s playing it, but when it’s the other team, you applaud it. I applaud Mercer, and they were absolutely terrific (Friday).”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com