The No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils entered Friday's Round of 64 game against the No. 14 Mercer Bears knowing that their opponents were dangerous, but that wasn't enough to prevent the biggest upset of the 2014 NCAA tournament thus far.
Mercer looked like Duke's equal from the opening tip, and its senior leadership proved to be the difference as the Bears came through down the stretch, while a young Duke team faltered in front of a seemingly pro-Mercer crowd at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
After the victory, an exuberant Mercer squad could barely contain its excitement:
As seen in this graphic courtesy of Bleacher Report, Mercer's shocking win likely ruined plenty of brackets that had Duke penciled in to the Final Four or perhaps even deeper:
Down goes Duke! No. 14 Mercer upsets the No. 3 Blue Devils pic.twitter.com/b0iJUVyXqU— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 21, 2014
Even though Mercer ran through the Atlantic Sun Conference this season, few gave the Bears a legitimate chance to win, but Duke's early-round issues in recent years reared their ugly head once again. The Blue Devils lost in the first round for the second time in three years.
The previous upset came in 2012 as a No. 2 against No. 15 Lehigh, and Lehigh athletics congratulated Mercer on Twitter:
Here is an in-depth look at how the Cinderella story played out, along with Twitter reaction from across social media.
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Recap and Twitter Reaction
While Mercer entered the game as a huge underdog against ACC power Duke, that didn't temper the enthusiasm or expectations of Mercer's fans. As seen in this Instagram video courtesy of The Fayetteville Observer's Bret Strelow, the Bears faithful were ready for their team to potentially pull off an upset:
All signs pointed toward Duke taking its challenger very seriously. According to Nicole Auerbach of USA Today, Blue Devils sophomore forward Amile Jefferson was quite aware of what the Bears brought to the table.
The seed doesn't always tell the story. As a player, you have to know you're going up against someone who's hungry. If that team comes for those 40 minutes with more fight than you, they can pull off the game. As a squad, we understand that and we'll be ready to fight.
Many pundits viewed Mercer as a team with a puncher's chance to knock off Duke due to its strong offensive production over the course of the season, but it paled in comparison to what the Blue Devils were able to accomplish ahead of the NCAA tournament, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Look out, Mercer ... Duke averages 119.9 points per 100 possessions, second best in the nation behind Creighton (121.4)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 20, 2014
One area where the Bears did hold the advantage was experience. The Blue Devils fielded the more talented lineup, but Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman had the luxury of starting five seniors, according to Joedy McCreary of The Associated Press:
At the same time, Duke and Mercer were essentially on equal footing in terms of their key players having a lack of tournament experience. According to C.L. Brown of ESPN.com, Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski was hopeful that his freshman studs would react well:
Rodney (Hood) and Jabari (Parker), this is their first NCAA tournament just like for the guys at Mercer. For a number of our guys, for almost half our team, it's our first NCAA tournament. So I hope it's a good one for us.
With that said, Coach K couldn't have possibly scripted the start of the game better, as sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon hit a three-pointer right off the bat:
Mercer wins the tap but after a stop on defense Rasheed Sulaimon buries a corner three to get Duke ont eh board first— Duke Basketball (@dukebasketball) March 21, 2014
Shooting from long range would prove to be a consistent theme for the Blue Devils throughout the first half as they attempted to counteract Mercer's length. According to McCreary, Duke almost exclusively used trifectas to build a six-point lead about midway through the first half:
Mercer's bigger than Duke, so Duke's shooting over 'em. Dukies are 50 pct (7-14) from 3-pt range. Sulaimon has 4 of 'em. Duke up 26-20— Joedy McCreary (@JoedyAP) March 21, 2014
Even with Duke's success from beyond the arc, though, it was unable to take a firm grasp of the game in the first half.
Mercer was able to muster an answer by hook or by crook on most occasions, although Duke seemed to be playing its preferred brand of basketball, according to ESPN's Dick Vitale:
Pace of the game has to make Coach K happy. Duke isn't having a cakewalk as Mercer is talented.— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) March 21, 2014
Hoffman deserves a lot of credit for keeping his team in the game as he switched defensive tactics. With his zone defense getting burned from downtown, Hoffman decided to adjust, per Grantland's Bill Barnwell:
Duke probably would have kept hitting 50 percent of their threes if Mercer had stayed in zone.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 21, 2014
Additionally, Mercer had luck on its side as phenomenal freshman Jabari Parker stumbled out of the gates for Duke. He connected on just one of his first five attempts from the field, according to Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead:
Duke has attempted 16 three pointers in 15 minutes. Parker's actually not scoring well (1-of-5), but he has 3 OREBS. Mercer has 0.— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) March 21, 2014
After pushing its lead to six points with around two minutes remaining, Duke suffered from a lapse that nearly cost it the advantage heading into halftime.
Mercer guard Ike Nwamu hit a pure jumper and then pickpocketed Parker. Duke's freshman star nearly chased Nwamu down and rejected him, but referees ruled it goaltending:
Duke turnover and a goaltending violation on Jabari Parker makes the lead just two now with 1:30 left in the half.— Duke Basketball (@dukebasketball) March 21, 2014
With momentum firmly on their side, the Bears took the lead on a three-pointer from senior forward Jakob Gollon.
Duke answered with just seconds remaining, as Parker hit a shot in the paint to give the Blue Devils a razor-thin lead of 35-34 through the first 20 minutes.
The fact that Mercer was able to keep things that close was a minor miracle considering the number of chances Duke generated. Per Daniel Martin of CSN Washington, the Blue Devils hit eight threes and crashed the boards as well:
It took Duke 11 offensive rebounds and eight threes to have a one-point halftime lead on Mercer.— Daniel Martin (@DMartinCSN) March 21, 2014
Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com added that Duke attempted as many three-point shots as Mercer did total shots in the first half:
Duke has taken 21 3-pointers. Mercer has taken 21 shots total.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 21, 2014
The Bears were patient, resilient and a bit lucky, however, which allowed them to plant a seed of doubt in Duke's head with the first half in the books.
Duke came out of the half ideally with a quick three-pointer, but Mercer continued to press forward. After a two, star guard Langston Hall gave Mercer the lead on a three-pointer just a couple minutes into the second half, according to Seth Davis of CBS Sports:
Langston Hall three puts Mercer up 1. Here we go.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 21, 2014
Mercer extended the lead to three points, and Duke began to look awfully tense. That was especially true of Parker, who committed an offensive foul and had to exit the game at the 16:10 mark with three fouls overall, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:
Jabari Parker, already having a rough game, picks up his third foul on a charge. Heads to bench w/ 16:10 to go.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 21, 2014
After Mercer upped the lead to five, Duke stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer from guard Tyler Thornton. Sulaimon found his way to the free-throw line soon after and tied the game at 45.
The three-point shooting gallery continued for Duke, as guard Quinn Cook hit one from long range to put the Blue Devils back on top by three and complete an 8-0 run.
Mercer remained undeterred as it battled back and regained the lead, but Sulaimon continued to put Duke on his back with Parker and Hood struggling by stroking his fifth trey of the game. Mercer tied it once again, but a deep three from Cook put Duke ahead once again 54-51 with nine minutes remaining:
Two offensive rebounds for the Blue Devils leading to a Quinn Cook 3-pointer. Cook has been feeling it today. He has 17 on 6-of-9 shooting.— Duke Basketball (@dukebasketball) March 21, 2014
Duke and Mercer traded missed three-pointers for several possessions before Gollon connected on a shot down low and drew the foul as well. With the old-fashioned three, the game was tied once again, but that was short-lived as Cook nailed yet another triple.
Two quick baskets by the Bears shifted the lead once again. Parker broke out of his slumber, however, and converted an and-one opportunity to give Duke a 60-58 advantage with five-and-a-half minutes to go.
With Mercer continuing to get decimated by Duke from beyond the arc, Nwamu got overaggressive and committed a cardinal sin by fouling Thornton on a three-point attempt.
Thornton hit all three freebies to secure a two-possession lead:
Thornton knocks down all three clutch free throws to stretch the Duke lead back to five. PNC Arena is loud now— Duke Basketball (@dukebasketball) March 21, 2014
Many teams would have folded in that situation, but Mercer continued to show a ton of heart and grit. After pulling to within three, senior guard Anthony White Jr. was pure from downtown to tie things up with less than three minutes on the clock:
Anthony White Jr. drills a three and we are tied. Big finish coming up!— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 21, 2014
Hood then inadvertently tripped up Gollon, who hit both ends of a one-and-one to give the Bears a shocking two-point lead with 1:55 left.
Hood followed up that poor play on the defensive end with another offensively. He traveled, which meant Mercer regained possession of the ball with 1:33 remaining.
Mercer forward Daniel Coursey then flushed an emphatic dunk and drew the foul to put Mercer on top 68-63. The play received high praise from Jonathan Heeter of The Telegraph:
That may be the greatest play of Daniel Coursey's career.— Jonathan Heeter (@heets_tweets) March 21, 2014
The Bears extended the lead to 69-63 with a free throw from Hall, but Sulaimon refused to lie down as he came through with a three-point play to reduce the deficit to three.
Duke let its guard down after the free throw, however, and White used a full-court pass to hit an uncontested layup.
White added two free throws on the next possession as the lead ballooned to seven.
As Mercer continued to build its lead, ESPN's Michael Wilbon could barely come to grips with the reality of the situation:
This is what makes the NCAA Tournament irresistible...but I still don't believe what I'm watching w Duke and Mercer...— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) March 21, 2014
How far will Mercer ultimately advance in the NCAA tournament?
Parker made an open dunk to shrink the deficit to five points, and Hall proceeded to turn the ball over, but it went off Sulaimon's leg and out of bounds, which was a huge missed opportunity for the Blue Devils.
Sulaimon's magic had apparently run out, as he missed a three-point attempt on the ensuing possession, and the Blue Devils ran out of time. They tried to play the foul game, but Mercer hit its shots and Duke couldn't generate any offense.
In the end, the Bears pulled off the colossal upset by a score of 78-71.
Mercer's calm play down the stretch was remarkable, and Sal Capaccio of WGR 550 chalked it up to senior leadership:
Duke had a 5 point lead on MERCER with less than 5:00 left and lost by 7. Seniors matter. Having 5 seniors REALLY matters.— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) March 21, 2014
Deadspin put the enormity of Mercer's victory into perspective by comparing the Bears' basketball budget to mighty Duke:
Duke loses to Mercer, despite having a basketball budget more than 12 times the size of the Bears': http://t.co/iEVzz4iz6a— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 21, 2014
Perhaps the biggest deciding factor in Friday's game was the inability of Parker and Hood to generate consistent offense. Vitale gave the Bears full credit for holding Duke's stars in check:
Incredible - congrats to Mercer - Atlantic Sun CONF / strikes gold again-Duke shocked by Bears -- Bears contain Parker/Hood #dickievpicks— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) March 21, 2014
Mercer advances to play the Massachusetts vs. Tennessee winner Sunday in Raleigh. Duke will brace for the inevitable loss of some of its top talent to the NBA draft and look to rebuild on the recruiting trail.
Although Mercer's victory over Duke was considered a huge upset, there is now plenty of optimism with regard to the Bears potentially making a run to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Neither Tennessee nor UMass are unbeatable by any means, and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim likes Mercer's chances, according to Adam Zagoria of SNY:
'Whosever playing Mercer is in trouble.' Jim Boeheim— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 21, 2014
After showing so much poise against a heavily favored Duke team on Friday, Mercer has all the makings of a tough out moving forward.
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