RALEIGH, N.C. — As the final seconds ticked off at PNC Arena on Friday afternoon with most of the building erupting in the joyful noise that accompanies a major NCAA tournament upset, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski sat back on his bench and took a deep breath.
He was steeling himself for what was to come: The inevitable questions about losing to a No. 14 seed; about being knocked out of the tournament in the round of 64 for the second time in three years; and about how a program with Duke’s pedigree loses to a team like Mercer — which, before Friday, last played in this event in 1985.
As painful as all of that was, Krzyzewski wasn’t at all shocked by Mercer’s 78-71 victory. He had known coming in that the talent advantage the Blue Devils had might be more than balanced by the Bears’ experience, strength in the paint and self-belief.
“They’re men,” Krzyzewski said a few minutes after the final buzzer. “They’re strong, and I don’t just mean physically. They have a great coach. Honestly, what they did was beautiful to see. I applaud them and I applaud their fans for what they’ve done this season.”
That was the gracious Krzyzewski, who has never been anything but gracious in defeat. But what he said was absolutely true. One of the last things Mercer Coach Bob Hoffman said to his team before they left the locker room before the game was direct: “They don’t have the experience you have. They haven’t been through what you’ve been through to get here.”
Hoffman started five seniors Friday. Krzyzewski started one. This is what college basketball has become: The big-time school has players who will make millions in the NBA but haven’t yet developed any real sense of toughness or learned to deal with adversity. The smaller school has older players who, in this case, spent a year smarting from a loss a year ago that denied them the chance to do what they did Friday.
Last March, Mercer lost the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game on its home floor to Florida Gulf Coast. The Bears then had to watch as the Eagles became national darlings by upsetting second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
“When they went on that run, we had to sit there and say, ‘That could have been us,’ ” said Anthony White Jr., who hit arguably the game’s biggest shot, a three-pointer that tied the score at 63 with 2 minutes 41 seconds left. “This year, we knew we had to go do it to them [win on the Eagles’ home court] because they had done it to us.”
Mercer did that, winning the title game at FGCU to earn a date with one of college basketball’s Tiffany programs. But this Duke team was an un-cut diamond, one that often turned into a lump of coal throughout the season. Without a consistent point guard and with almost no inside presence, the Blue Devils were prone to droughts late in games.
Their first loss of the season, in November to Kansas, ended with the Jayhawks outscoring them 17-6 after the score had been tied at 77. Their last loss of the season turned on an 11-0 Mercer run after Duke had gone up 63-58 with 4:52 to go. There were similar disappearances, including a late 17-0 Wake Forest run earlier this month that sent Duke to an embarassing loss and landed Krzyzewski in the hospital.
Friday’s numbers that people will focus on — understandably — are the shooting statistics for Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Duke’s best players. Parker was 4 of 14 from the field and had four turnovers. Hood was worse: 2 of 10 from the field, with three turnovers and some remarkably poor defense.
“Obviously we’re not going to win a lot of games with those two kids shooting 6 of 24,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve been great for us a lot of the time this season. Quinn [Cook, who had 23 points] and Rasheed [Sulaimon, 20] kept us in. Our guys tried. I have no fault with my team.”
Except that it wasn’t good enough.
The matchup that symbolized this game was Parker against Mercer’s Jakob Gollon. Parker is a freshman who turned 19 a week ago. Gollon is a sixth-year senior who has battled back from injuries to become an effective player. He turned 24 in November. He scored 20 points and had five rebounds. He also was 9 of 9 from the free throw line, making all the critical free throws his team needed down the stretch after taking the lead.
“My body’s a little bit banged up,” he said, smiling. “When we miss free throws in practice, we have to run. Now that’s pressure.”
Gollon made life miserable for Parker every time he tried to get to the basket — with some help from his friends. “I’d love to take the credit,” he said. “But every defensive scheme we worked on to stop him involved other guys coming to help me. There’s no way I stopped him. We stopped him.”
Parker will be a millionaire very soon. Gollon, not so much. But on Friday, Gollon was by far the better basketball player.
This was almost undoubtedly the last college basketball game for Parker and Hood. Parker might be the first pick in June’s NBA draft and Hood is a likely first-round pick. It says something about today’s basketball world that two players who looked helpless against Mercer of the Atlantic Sun are coveted by the NBA.
It also says a lot about what college basketball has become that Krzyzewski slipped into talking about both in the past tense during his postgame press conference. “They’ve been great players for us,” he said at one point. “I feel bad for them.”
When someone asked Krzyzewski about what kind of team he expects to have next season, he shrugged. “That’s tough to answer,” he said. “Because right now I don’t know what team I’ll have next year.”
One thing is certain: It will be a young team, especially if Parker and Hood depart as expected. In truth, the one statistic that said more about why this outcome was entirely predictable had nothing to do with shots, rebounds, assists or turnovers. It was this: Mercer 157, Duke 34. That was the number of minutes played by Mercer’s seniors — the Bears are the only Division I team in the country to start five of them — compared with the number of minutes played by Duke’s seniors.
“When the game was on the line, they stayed together,” Cook said. “They’re a veteran team. They didn’t splinter.”
Not long after their on-court celebration had ended, the Mercer players were in the locker room, checking their over-loaded cellphones for texts. The door opened and in walked Krzyzewski.
“I just wanted to tell you guys something,” he said. “If I had to lose today, I’m glad I lost to a group like you. You deserved this.”
Krzyzewski had it right. His team’s season was over. Mercer’s was not. Which should not be a shock to anyone.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.