ONE & DONE: 14th seed Mercer shocks No. 3 Duke
Rodney Hood buried his face in his two hands and sat silently.
Nearby, Rasheed Sulaimon prayed silently before completing the sign of the cross.
But there was no hiding from what had happened, no calling on a higher power to erase an ugly afternoon for No. 8 Duke.
The Blue Devils, one game into the NCAA Tournament, were done.
No. 14 seed Mercer outhustled and out played third-seeded Duke, rallying from five points down in the final five minutes to beat the Blue Devils 78-71 in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional game at PNC Arena.
“We just didn’t finish down the stretch and that’s the story of our season,” said Sulaimon, Duke’s sophomore guard. “We played great. I felt like that was a great (Mercer) team. We were battling and they were battling. But when it came to nut-cutting time, they made more plays than we did.”
It’s the second time Duke, the four-time NCAA champion, has suffered the indignity of an early tournament defeat in the last three years. In 2012, at Greensboro Coliseum, 15th-seeded Lehigh eliminated a second-seeded Duke team 75-70.
Duke junior guard Quinn Cook, a freshman on that 2012 team, noticed a difference between that loss and Friday’s defeat.
“That was lack of effort,” Cook said. “Today I don’t think it was a lack of effort. I think we played okay. But okay is not going to get it done in March.”
The more experienced Bears (27-8), Atlantic Sun Conference champions, played a far more precise game offensively and defensively. They started five seniors, receiving standout production inside from 6-6 forward Jakob Gallon (20 points) and 6-10 center Daniel Coursey (17 points).
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was more than a simple matter of Mercer having the experience edge.
“Mercer is a championship team,” Krzyzewski said. “Mercer is a team that probably should have been in the tournament last year. They return everybody and those kids, they’re not kids. Those men are determined to do something.”
They clearly did that.
Meanwhile, Krzyzewski’s two leading scorers for the season, freshman Jabari Parker and redshirt sophomore transfer Rodney Hood, played their first NCAA Tournament games. It showed as Parker went 4 of 14 from the field for 14 points while Hood was 2 of 10 for six points.
A somber Parker, a first-team all-American and the nation’s top freshman, struggled to explain how his outstanding offensive skills failed him against Mercer.
“They just didn’t fall,” Parker said of his shots. “I could have done a way better job.”
As for measuring his disappointment, all he could manage to say was, “You can’t put it in words. You can’t.”
Hood played a season of Division I basketball at Mississippi State in 2011-12 that didn’t include an NCAA Tournament berth. He had been looking forward to his first tournament appearance.
“Talent don’t win championships,” Hood said. “I was supposed to be one of the leaders. I didn’t come through.”
Duke (26-9) got what it needed from its perimeter players as Sulaimon scored 23 points and Cook added 20. Cook made 7 of 10 3-pointers while Sulaimon was good on 5 of 12. They accounted for most of the 15 3-pointers Duke made against Mercer.
But other than Parker’s 14 points, five below his season scoring average, no other Duke player reached double figures in scoring.
The Blue Devils shot a feeble 35.5 percent from the field while committing 12 turnovers.
Problems finding good shots against Mercer’s effective half-court defense doomed Duke down the stretch.
After Tyler Thornton’s three free throws put Duke up 63-58 with 4:52 to play, the Blue Devils went five consecutive possessions without a point.
The stretch started when Hood fired a pass out of bounds to the Duke bench for a turnover. It included missed 3-pointers by Sulaimon and Parker, a Hood traveling call and a missed 3-pointer from Andre Dawkins.
Mercer, meanwhile, scored on six consecutive possessions, starting with a Coursey hook and continuing with Anthony White Jr.’s 3-pointer which beat the shot-clock buzzer and tied the score at 63.
The Bears worked the ball inside and wound up at the free throw line on each of their next three possessions. Those six more points completed an 11-0 run that gave them at 69-63 lead with 53.1 seconds left.
“Our guys believed they could win which is also a major thing that transpired,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “You can conquer anything if you have the belief they do in each other and their skill set.”
Mercer salted away the win by making five of six free throws in the final minute. The Bears finished with just eight turnovers.
Duke headed into its offseason with an empty feeling that may never be filled.
“Sometimes the other team has just played better and you don’t play as well,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t. They made us look that way but we also just didn’t play.”
|MERCER 78, DUKE 71|
Percentages: FG .556, FT .821.
3-Point Goals: 5-13, .385 (White Jr. 2-2, Hall 1-2, Nwamu 1-2, Gollon 1-3, Moten 0-1, Canevari 0-1, Thomas 0-2).
Team Rebounds: 3.
Blocked Shots: 0.
Turnovers: 8 (Hall 3, Coursey 2, White Jr., Nwamu, Gollon).
Steals: 3 (Gollon 2, Nwamu).
Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .355, FT .923.
3-Point Goals: 15-37, .405 (Cook 7-10, Sulaimon 5-12, Hood 2-5, Thornton 1-1, Jones 0-1, Parker 0-3, Dawkins 0-5).
Team Rebounds: 2.
Blocked Shots: 1 (Jefferson).
Turnovers: 12 (Parker 4, Hood 3, Jefferson 2, Cook 2, Thornton).
Steals: 6 (Cook 2, Parker, Jefferson, Thornton, Sulaimon).
Technical Fouls: None.
Officials_Don Daily, Gerry Pollard, Tom O'Neill.