RALEIGH – A half-hour after No. 14 Mercer upset No. 3 Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, Mike Krzyzewski stepped into the entrance of the Bears locker room. Players were texting family members, conducting interviews and watching themselves on YouTube when the familiar nasally voice of the Duke head coach cut through the joyous din.
"You guys have a hell of a basketball team," Krzyzewski said, pausing for a moment. "I love the game, and you guys play the game really, really well. And your coach coaches it well. If we had to be beaten, I'm glad we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team."
That will be the enduring legacy of this upset, etched in the record books as Mercer 78, Duke 71. The Bears' first-ever NCAA tournament win unfolded as a pure team victory, with five senior starters, five players in double figures and the two defining plays executed with Swiss precision in the final 70 seconds.
This wasn't Stephen Curry going bonkers or a junk defense slowing down an opponent. This wasn't Princeton holding the ball and backdoor-cutting its way to victory. Mercer simply had the better basketball team, flexing the power of seven senior contributors and outplaying Duke in every facet.
The Bears' victory came against the bluest of basketball blue bloods, as the Blue Devils have the sport's best brand and winningest coach. And the emphatic victory will serve as a seminal reminder of this season's enduring lesson -- great teams can trump elite individual talent.
Mercer's Bob Hoffman, who has coached everything from Oklahoma high schools to NAIA women to the D-League, put on a clinic in synchronization. And don't be surprised if Mercer keeps advancing, as they'll face No. 11 Tennessee on Sunday, a team that the Bears thumped in the NIT in Knoxville at the end of last season.
"We're not done," said senior guard Langston Hall. "We beat Duke, might as well try and win a couple more games."
The winning ethos of Mercer can be neatly summarized in the game's two defining plays. Among the 150 plays the Bears run are sets called "Cheesteak" and "Pig's Snout." Hoffman is old school, and players joke that they must be difficult to scout because even they struggle to remember all the plays.
Amid that colorful repertoire of names, the gem of a play that Mercer ran to help seal the game goes by the mundane name of "Wide." With just over a minute to go, senior center Daniel Coursey came up to the right side of the 3-point arc, set a screen for Hall and then rolled to the basket. Hall looked away from Coursey, freezing Blue Devils power forward Jabari Parker for a moment as he tried to mind both Coursey and forward Jakob Gollon.
Coursey darted to the bucket and Hall whipped a bullet pass straight into NCAA lore, hitting the streaking Coursey who finished over the late-helping Hood for an old-fashioned 3-point play.
The execution of the Mercer pick-and-roll is more the stuff of coaching clinics than highlight reels, a testament to repetition, a deft read and, of course, teamwork.
Coursey finished strong at the rim and made the free throw to give the Bears a 68-63 lead with 1:07 left.
"I only made the shot, that was all Lang," Coursey said. "He just finds people so well. He knows where everyone is and supposed to be."
A similar kinetic moment happened between two other Mercer seniors with 46 seconds remaining. Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon had cut the Bears' lead to 69-66 on a three-point play, and the Blue Devils set up their press for the ensuing inbounds. Sulaimon lined up in front of Mercer's Anthony White Jr., who immediately made eye contact with inbounder Bud Thomas.
"Both of our eyes got really big," White said. "He just nodded his head 'yes' really quick and I took off."
The pass wasn't perfect, as Thomas led White so much that the ball bounced once and White fumbled it a bit before managing to score with Sulaimon in pursuit.
"I tried to channel my inner-Peyton Manning," joked Thomas, who is from Colorado. "No one had the hoop. I had the whole court to work with."
That sealed Duke's fate as a double-digit upset victim for the second time in three years, as No. 15 Lehigh stunned the Blue Devils in 2012. Krzyzewski practically predicted a Mercer upset in the press conference the day before, as he worried out loud about the lack of NCAA tournament experience for Parker, a freshman, and Hood, a sophomore transfer from Mississippi State. Coach K was dead on, as his two stars combined to shoot 6-for-24 and turn the ball over seven times.
In the Duke locker room, each was viscerally rattled by the loss.
Parker sat on a chair and openly wept, wiping away tears from his face with his Duke No. 1 jersey. He shot 4-for-14 and never got in any rhythm. At one point in the first half he traveled on back-to-back possessions.
One day soon, Parker will be an NBA franchise player. Today he was an overwhelmed freshman who got swept up by the emotion of what was likely his final college game. Parker admitted between sobs that he pondered this being his final college game in the waning seconds. "Incompletion," he said, trying to fight back tears. "I don't know. Just incompletion."
Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said the Duke staff put so much on Parker this year that it's understandable that he could be "overwhelmed by the moment." When asked about this, Parker's teary response summed up his disappointing day and season of great expectations. "I gotta be a man about it," Parker said, whimpering between words. "I have to take the responsibility."
Shock and pain filled the other parts of the Duke locker room.
Senior Josh Hairston held up his jersey in front of his face and stared aimlessly at it. Hood sat alone in the middle of the locker room with his hands rubbing his face and legs vibrating incessantly, like a violent twitch. Hood, who shot 2-for-10 from the field and whose walk that immediately preceded Coursey's key three-point play was the game's biggest turnover, didn't say a word when asked if he could answer a question. He just kept rubbing his face and shaking his legs.
Hood and Parker will live on as the depressed faces of this Duke loss, as both may go to the NBA this year having lost their only NCAA tournament game. (Parker said he and Krzyzewski will sit down after the season and talk about it.)
"We're not going to win a lot of games when those two kids (shoot) like that," Krzyzewski said. "We've won a lot of games where they've been terrific and I've loved coaching them and I feel bad for them because you have, we all have to live with that."
Parker's regret over incompletion offers the perfect bitter contrast to Mercer's two deft completions that ultimately won the Bears the game. Preseason glory comes hinged on potential. Postseason glory is based on production. And Mercer's five senior starters produced an upset so rich that even Coach K couldn't help but marvel at it.
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