Stunned by Duke’s Exit? Mercer Isn’t

By MARCH 21, 2014

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The Mercer forward Jakob Gollon scored 20 points to lead the Bears. CreditGerry Broome/Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — Four national championships, a Hall of Fame coach, five-star recruits each year and national exposure second to none. That is the Duke men’s basketball program, the envy of most and the measure of just about every team in the N.C.A.A.

It is why the Blue Devils are loved by so many. It is why they are equally hated by so many more.

But even Duke can have a hard time living up to expectations. On Friday at PNC Arena, a young Duke team carried by a freshman all-American forward ran into an experienced club that more than measured up.

Mercer, a No. 14 seed out of the easy-to-overlook Atlantic Sun Conference, was wholly unintimidated by the Blue Devils’ star freshman, Jabari Parker, or their history.

What mattered was experience. Mercer’s senior-laden roster had more of it, and the Bears coolly knocked off the Blue Devils, 78-71, in the Midwest Region in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Round of 64. Jakob Gollon, who scored 20 points for Mercer, made two free throws with 1 minute 54 seconds remaining to break a 63-63 tie

“It’s definitely a surreal feeling, man,” the senior Mercer guard Langston Hall said. “This is what March madness is about, really.”

But beating Duke may not be so mad anymore. Since 2012, Duke has twice lost in its tournament opener to low seeds. In 2012, 15th-seeded Lehigh of the Patriot League defeated second-seeded Duke, 75-70, in Greensboro, N.C. Now Mercer has done it. The Bears (27-8) will play 11th-seeded Tennessee on Sunday.

“We’re a very veteran team,” Gollon said. “We’ve been saying it all week, every time everybody’s asking us about that kind of stuff. We’ve got a lot of seniors and a lot of high-character seniors.

“When it gets tough out there, when it gets loud to call plays and stuff, a lot of guys stay focused, keep everyone calm and stay collected in those heated moments.”

In the Duke locker room, Parker cried. He shot 4 of 14 from the field, including 0 of 3 from 3-point range.

“We put pressure on ourselves,” Parker said before breaking down into tears. “Got to be a man about it. I’ve got to take the responsibility.”

Before the tournament, it seemed certain that Parker was set to move on to the N.B.A. He could be the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft. After the game, Parker made no commitments. Asked to describe his feelings about his Duke career, he said, “Incompletion.”

He added: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Some had thought that Duke might challenge for the national title. But on a day when Parker and forward Rodney Hood were largely neutralized, Duke’s guards could not carry the team. They tried, with Quinn Cook scoring 23 for the Blue Devils (26-9) and Rasheed Sulaimon adding 20.

“The tournament sometimes places you in a position where you have a younger team than the team you’re playing against,” said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who praised his Mercer counterpart, Bob Hoffman. “Not just younger in age, but in physical maturity. They’re a strong team. And he’s a heck of a coach. And our inside guys were young at times.”

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