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Duke falls into mighty Bear trap

RALEIGH Mercer, Mercer me – what an upset that was.

No. 3 seed Duke lost its first NCAA tournament game for the second time in three years Friday, as No. 14 seed Mercer knocked out the Blue Devils, 78-71.

In the giddy Mercer locker room afterward, the Bears’ Darious Moten proclaimed: “Every bracket in America just got busted!”

“Not mine,” said a teammate from one locker over.

Yes, Mercer believed. But hardly anyone else believed Mercer would pull off the most shocking upset of the 2014 NCAA tournament so far.

Duke had freshman Jabari Parker and sophomore Rodney Hood, two eventual first-round NBA draft selections.

Mercer, the pride of middle Georgia, had five no-name seniors for starters and a gorgeous game plan predicated on making Duke shoot itself in the foot with one hand while hoisting its beloved three-pointers with the other.

By mid-afternoon Friday, Parker’s NCAA tournament career had turned into what his Duke career almost certainly will be: One and done.

The game bore strong similarities to Duke’s NCAA flameout in 2012 when it lost to No. 15 seed Lehigh in Greensboro. And Parker, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, didn’t even make it to the first NCAA weekend.

“Got to be a man about it,” Parker said tearfully of his 4-for-14 shooting day. “Got to take the responsibility.”

“It’s my worst nightmare,” said Hood, who went 2-for-10 from the field, and was crying so hard in the locker room it took him several minutes to talk at all. “This is the worst I’ve ever felt. I’m ashamed.”

Meanwhile, Mercer was dancing and its coach, Bob Hoffman, was yelling “Wooooo!” at anyone who came by and the Bears were celebrating after the game with their student section like they had won the NCAA championship.

And Mercer deserved to do that. Mercer – which joins the Southern Conference next season just as Davidson exits the league – hadn’t even been to the NCAA tournament since 1985.

The Bears thought they should have gonelast year as regular-season champion of the Atlantic Sun, but instead got upset by Florida Gulf Coast in the conference tournament. Mercer watched with a mixture of pride and jealousy a year ago as FGCU’s “Dunk City” squad got to last year’s Sweet 16 despite its No. 15 seed.

“We were thinking that could be us,” Mercer’s Anthony White said. “That’s something we kept in our heads throughout the whole season.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, gracious in defeat, made it a point to stop by Mercer’s locker room after the game to congratulate the Bears. Before that, he concluded his postgame press conference by saying: “I love the game. And when the game’s played really well, I hope it’s us playing it. But when it’s the other team, you have to applaud it. I applaud Mercer and they were absolutely terrific today.”

Mercer has a 6-foot-10 center in Daniel Coursey who was the best inside threat in Friday’s game. Duke simply couldn’t get the ball inside with any success, making 7-of-25 two-point attempts.

Mercer outscored the Blue Devils, 26-10, in the paint. Simply put, the Blue Devils looked soft, especially on defense.

Or, to use Parker’s word, Duke looked “rattled.” (Parker, incidentally, said after the game that Duke’s loss might sway him to return next season, but he was in no emotional state to make any long-term declarations at that point).

Duke did lead 63-58 with 4:52 to go.

But Mercer then took control of the game with 11 straight points, as Duke’s 3-point offense – the Blue Devils went 15 for 37 from behind the arc – went south.

On this day, Mercer was the more poised team. The better-coached team. The smarter team. The tougher team. The team that will have a great chance of its own to reach the Sweet 16 on Sunday in Raleigh.

By the end, it wasn’t close. Mercer was up by six points with 11 seconds left and Jakob Gollon, a sixth-year senior, on the free-throw line.

“Man, we’re about to beat Duke,” Langston Hall, Mercer’s standout point guard, said he thought to himself then.

Mercer could beat No. 11 seed Tennessee on Sunday, too. The Bears are not a typical mid-major team. They are taller and better-coached.

As Duke’s players filed off silently after the game, Mercer’s players stayed with their fans to celebrate. Mercer’s mascot took off his head inside the tunnel and sweatily hugged every cheerleader he could find. The contrast of elation and desolation was striking.

Mercer’s great gamble had worked. Mercer put out the cheese to Duke – please, please, take another contested 3-point shot! – and the Blue Devils took the bait.

“I told the guys, ‘If they hit the three, shake their hand,’ ” Hoffman said. “We’ll put the uniforms up and try again next year.”

Instead, Duke will be the one putting up its uniforms, undone once again by a double-digit seed with a six-letter name that much of America would have trouble locating on a map.

First, Lehigh. Now Mercer.

Duke guard Quinn Cook – who led the Blue Devils with 23 points Friday – had the misfortune of playing in the Lehigh game in 2012, too.

“You don’t recover from it,” he said. “You don’t ever recover.”

Parker described his career at Duke with one word afterward: “Incompletion.”

Parker said it twice, and then he started to say something else, and then he just bowed down his head and cried.

Mercer’s locker room was just down the hall. And it was so quiet in the Duke locker room that while Parker’s shoulders shook in silence, you could hear the Mercer players celebrating.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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