Julia May / The Chronicle
Mercer had other ideas.
Fifteen 3-pointers were not enough for No. 3 Duke to escape the 14th-seeded Bears, falling 78-71 at PNC Arena. The Blue Devils made just three two-point baskets in the second half, as Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood were never able to find a rhythm.
Parker scored 14 points but was just 4-of-14 from the floor, while Hood finished with just six points and was held scoreless in the second half. Arriving in Durham with high expectations, Parker called the loss "disappointing" and his season "incomplete."
"We didn't close the deal. We had a lot of chances to do so," said Parker, who acknowledged that the pressures of playing in March affected his style of play. "I should've treated it like any other game... [I didn't do] what I did before this: just playing."
Empty possessions down the stretch proved costly for the Blue Devils, as an errant pass out of bounds, an air-ball and a travel gave Mercer a chance to erase a 63-58 Duke lead. The Bears took advantage, scoring 11 unanswered points in the closing minutes to pull off the major upset.
Playing a Mercer squad with seven seniors, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said his team showed its youth, letting a late second-half lead slip away for the fifth time this season.
"The tournament sometimes places you in a position where you have a younger team than the team you're playing against. Not just younger in age but in physical maturity," Krzyzewski said. "[We're] just young [inside]. I mean, we've gone through that all year."
Initially, Duke was able to survive the struggles of its two leading scorers, thanks to the 3-pointer. Rasheed Sulaimon set the trigger-happy tone early for the Blue Devils, draining two corner triples on Duke's first two possessions. He and junior Quinn Cook hit big shot after big shot from downtown to pace Duke, finishing with a combined 43 points, 36 of which came via 3-pointers.
With Mercer center Daniel Coursey—the Atlantic Sun's Defensive Player of the Year—making life difficult for the Blue Devils in the key, Sulaimon and his teammates resorted to the long ball, firing away 37 times on the afternoon.
"[Mercer] really packed it in," sophomore forward Amile Jefferson said. "They did a good job of, whenever guys drove or we got it in down low, they had multiple guys crowd the paint, and that's what was there, the kick-out three."
Even with the Blue Devils' streaky shooting, the Bears (27-8) refused to roll over. Ike Kwamu poured in all 11 of his points in the first half off the bench as Mercer executed brilliantly in the half-court. The Bears shot 55.6 percent from the field and converted on 23-of-28 free throws.
With Duke (26-9) trailing 45-40, Tyler Thornton made a series of plays of the type that have defined his career in Durham. He nailed his first 3-point attempt of the afternoon to cut the deficit to two, then came up with a steal on the next Mercer possession. He couldn't finish in the lane and fell to the ground out of bounds, but scrambled up only to hit the deck again to save the ball from careening out of bounds. Thornton's hustle play earned Sulaimon two free throws, erasing what had been Mercer's largest lead of the game.
Thornton's energy created a spark for the Blue Devils on the offensive end, but the defensive letdowns that have plagued Duke in second halves all season re-emerged once more, the major reason why there will be no more hustle plays in a Duke uniform from the senior.
Another triple by Cook gave Duke the lead back at 48-45, but Mercer scored four straight points to reclaim it. Finding himself wide open again from the top of the key, Cook splashed home his fifth 3-pointer of the afternoon, putting Duke ahead 54-51 with 9:05 remaining.
Parker finally asserted himself with 5:39 remaining, converting a 3-point play to put Duke ahead 60-58. Thornton then calmly sank three free-throws to give Duke a five-point cushion.
But that cushion was short-lived, as the Bears—who shot more than 50 percent from the floor on the afternoon—controlled the rest of the game. Coursey led the Bears with 17 points, scoring as many two-point field goals as the entire Duke team, and Mercer got double-figure contributions from Jakob Gollon, Langston Hall and Anthony White Jr.
The Blue Devils allowed a 17-0 run down the stretch in a loss to Wake Forest March 5. This time around, it was 11 straight Mercer points that ended Duke's season prematurely.
"On the defensive end is where we've lost all the games," Hood said of Duke's plethora of second-half collapses. "People like to say offensive, we'd go in a drought, something like that. Defensively, we come down and score a bucket, and they come back with an answer. It just sucks we didn't figure it out before this tournament....I thought I'd be playing after today."