"I don’t know, I think this team was more together, more of a team than that team [that played Lehigh] was, but it’s obviously still frustrating to have the same result,” graduate student Andre Dawkins said.
When No. 3 seed Duke walked off the court Friday March 21 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. after a shocking 78-71 loss to No. 14 seed Mercer, it did so as a team. That's something that couldn't have been said about the players with "Duke" emblazoned on their chests two seasons ago, when C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Mountain Hawks stuck it to a disjointed group of Blue Devils.
The emotion and camaraderie was evident to everyone with eyes after Friday's game. Point guard Quinn Cook took the long walk to the postgame press conference with crimson, tearful eyes. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood kept his head in his hands with his knees shaking while sitting in the locker room. Freshman Jabari Parker choked back tears. Guard Rasheed Sulaimon sat in the corner of the locker room, on the floor, needing to be left alone as he stared off into space. They weren't upset about only the loss—they were upset that their journey together had come to a close.
"Even though [both teams] lost in the second round, that team a couple of years ago, we weren’t really a team," senior Josh Hairston said. "And I think that if you went back and looked at the roster and asked those guys, did they feel like they were a collective team, a collective unit, they would definitely disagree. This group, we were a team—on and off the court we did everything together."
That wasn't the only difference between the Mercer and Lehigh losses. Friday, the Blue Devils never gave up. The team fought together, kept its confidence high and trusted that the good looks it was getting at the basket were going to fall eventually. That same mindset wasn't there two seasons ago.
“I think against Lehigh we didn’t fight," Cook said. "I think they just out-fought us for 40 minutes. I think today we fought, and [Mercer] just made some big plays at the end of the game and we missed some shots.... Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”
With fight not being the issue, the answer to Duke's struggles is painfully obvious—it was the Blue Devils' inexperience.
"We showed our youth," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You know, we got that [63-58] lead and [the Bears] showed their veteran, their maturity during that time, and we needed to knock down another shot and we got one really good shot then, but didn't knock it down.”
The two Duke stars who had never played in an NCAA tournament game could not rise to the challenge in the spotlight of the Big Dance. Parker and Hood combined to shoot a paltry 6-for-24 from the field—one fewer field goal than scored by Mercer big man Daniel Coursey all by himself. The inability to make shots prevented those players from being leaders on the floor.
“I didn’t [try to convey a message]," the captain Hood said. "I didn’t play well. They couldn’t look at me to do something. I didn’t come through for them. To do that in this time, like I said, it’s like my worst nightmare.”
Even if youth can be pinpointed as the problem against a very veteran Mercer club, that wasn't a good enough excuse for the Blue Devils, the cohesive team that had fought side-by-side, newcomer with veteran, all season long.
“People can say we’re a young team, and people can say we have guys that really haven’t played together that long, but we’re not going to give any excuses," Hairston said. "We’ve had over 100 practices to try to get it right, and in some games we have this year, we’ve played very well, but in games like this, when we have mental lapses, loss is imminent.”
With Hood and Parker not able to live up to the high standard they set for themselves during the regular season and ACC tournament and upperclassmen Hairston, Dawkins and Tyler Thornton not playing heavy minutes, the onus of carrying the team fell on the shoulders of Cook and Sulaimon. The embattled guards ended their turbulent seasons on a high note, combining for 43 points on 14-of-26 shooting.
Cook made a point of telling the press that this season was not a failure—Duke did have great moments. The play of Cook, Sulaimon and forward Amile Jefferson Friday leaves hope for a veteran contingent to lead the team to greater NCAA tournament success next season.
"We all grew up this year and we stayed together," Cook said. "It hurts, but we have to move on.”