RALEIGH, N.C. — This upset-filled NCAA tournament got its biggest shocker yet Friday afternoon.
Playing just a short drive from Duke’s campus, No. 14 seed Mercer took down the third-seeded Blue Devils, 78-71, in a Midwest Region first-round matchup, delighting an RBC Arena crowd that had no problem embracing March’s newest underdog.
It’s the second time in three years Duke has lost to a double-digit seed in its opening game of the NCAA tournament. Mercer advanced to face either Massachusetts or Tennessee, who play later Friday afternoon.
Mercer, the Atlantic Sun champion – home to Florida Gulf Coast, last year’s NCAA tournament Cinderella — had Duke on the ropes all afternoon. And it would not fade down the stretch.
The Bears tied the score at 54 heading into the second-to-last media timeout and took a one-point lead with less than six minutes to go on a beautiful feed from guard Anthony White, Jr. to forward Jakob Gollon.
But Duke star freshman Jabari Parker, just 2 of 11 from the field and in the midst of a rough afternoon in what could be his final college game, responded with a three-point play to give the Blue Devils the lead back. Duke, though, would go more than five minutes without another field goal, mixing turnovers and poor shot selection as Mercer, making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985, grabbed hold of the momentum for good.
A three-pointer by White tied the score at 63 with 2 minutes 39 seconds left in regulation and Gollon hit two free throws to give the Bears a two-point lead on Mercer’s next possession. By the time forward Daniel Courcey completed a three-point play of his own on a dunk that sent this crowd into frenzy, Mercer was on an 11-0 run and would soon widen its advantage to double digits.
The Bears scored 20 of the game’s final 25 points.
Mercer, which beat Mississippi and nearly knocked off Texas during nonconference play this season, never seemed intimidated by the mighty Blue Devils. The Bears opened the game by attempting an alley-oop, took the lead late in the first half after trailing by seven and, in general, looked like the only team in the country to start five seniors in every game this year.
Duke, meanwhile, kept settling for contested outside jump shots. And though Rasheed Sulaimon got hot early, the Blue Devils finished the first half shooting just 35.3 percent. Of their 34 field goal attempts, 21 came from three-point range. Duke’s lone saving grace came inside, where it dominated the rebounding battle and entered halftime with a 14-0 advantage in second-chance points.
At one point, Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski waved his arms to encourage a large contingent of Duke fans with his team off to a sluggish start amid its season-long defensive woes
But Mercer, the only team in the country to start five seniors, came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders again in the second half, gouging the Blue Devils’ lackluster defense to the delight of a small but boisterous section of orange-clad fans that made the trip from Macon, Ga.
Parker finished with 14 points, committed four turnovers and picked up his third foul less than four minutes into the second half. And with a little more than 15 minutes remaining, the Blue Devils faced a 45-40 deficit.
Mercer wasn’t going anywhere.
“I don’t know who’s beating us,” Mercer Coach Bob Hoffman told CBS after the game when asked how far his team can go. “These guys are special.”