RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, once fierce rivals at their Washington, D.C.-area high schools, walked arm-in-arm down the hallway at PNC Arena, sobbing.
The way back to a disconsolate Blue Devils locker room took the two men past the team that had just ended their season. There, Mercer players were joyfully celebrating their 78-71 NCAA tournament victory Friday afternoon, a moment they were sure could have come last March. The waiting only made it sweeter.
"Duke is a great team, we knew we were going to get a great game out of anybody in this tournament," reserve guard Kevin Canevari said. "We kept it within. But we believe we can beat anybody. We're not surprised by any means."
For Duke, a No. 3 seed, a college basketball blueblood, there was nothing but emptiness afterward. The Blue Devils had no words to explain how they failed to put the game away up 63-58 with 4:52 to play. Mercer, the No. 14 seed, appeared dead. Someone just forgot to tell the Bears they were supposed to give up.
A jumper by Daniel Coursey and a 3-pointer by Anthony White tied the game in short order. A Blue Devils foul and a pair of free throws by Jakob Gollon and suddenly Mercer was ahead again, this time for good after a stunning 11-0 run.
"I'm disappointed. I never thought this was going to happen," said Duke star freshman Jabari Parker, who scored 14 points in what's expected to be his final college game before turning pro. "Mercer wanted it more. They didn't look at it on paper."
The key play is one the Bears call "Wide." In Atlantic Sun play, conference opponents know it so well that they often take it away from the Bears. Duke doesn't have that familiarity. And so after a back screen, Coursey broke for the basket and guard Langston Hall found him with a pretty pass for a layup and a foul. Suddenly, the Blue Devils were in trouble with 1:07 left.
"I don't think they really knew that we were going to run that," Coursey said. "They kind of underestimated it a little bit. But we got it."
Afterward, the Mercer room buzzed with the voices of happy players still celebrating the upset. Coursey was answering a question about his late basket that put his team in control, Canevari was explaining why he does a contorted dance after big wins with his teammates circled around him cheering like mad men.
Suddenly, a man popped into the room to say a few words despite his own anguish. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said quietly, "Congratulations, fellas."
A hush came over the room instantly. Coursey stopped mid-sentence. A few of his teammates said "Thanks, coach." Then there was silence. Krzyzewski had the floor in a hushed room.
"You guys have a hell of a basketball team," Krzyzewski said, his voice cracking. "I love the game. And you guys play the game really, really well and your coach [Bob Hoffman] coaches it well. We had to be beaten. We got beaten by a hell of a basketball team. So good luck to you."
With that, the winningest coach in Division I college basketball history disappeared around the corner and back into his own broken hearted locker room.
"Well, what does that mean to you?" a reporter asked. Coursey waited a beat, then laughed.
"Oh. My. God. I obviously don't even know. That's huge," Coursey said. "Coach K is one of the most famous basketball coaches ever. For him to come in here and tell us that we're a great basketball, that's pretty unbelievable to tell you the truth."
Back in the Duke room, senior Andre Dawkins, his own career finished, tried in vain to console Cook, a junior who shot 8-for-11, including seven 3-pointers en route to a game-high 23 points. But it wasn't enough for the former DeMatha High player.
"For us seniors, we end our career on this note," said Dawkins, who remembered all too well a similar loss to Lehigh when Duke was a No. 2 seed two years ago. "Maybe down the road we can look back on our careers and see our good moments. But right now it's pretty frustrating."
Mercer had a senior group of its own. Five of its top six scorers are in their final season. They, too, have endured hardships to reach this moment. The Bears lost to Florida Gulf Coast last year in the Atlantic Sun final and had to watch their rival reach the Sweet 16 and become a national darling with its entertaining "Dunk City" style of play. Mercer repaid the favor this year, winning the conference tournament on FGCU's home court. Now, the Bears had a March moment of their very own.
"Beating Duke will always be in the history books," Bears junior forward Darious Moten said. "Anytime you watch March Madness, there will be clips of us beating Duke. ...This is our first time playing in the NCAA tournament, but it's not our first time playing in big games."
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