RALEIGH, N.C. – There was a level of confidence and poise, the air of a veteran team that expected to win on college basketball’s biggest stage.
There was execution, huge defense, clutch free throws down the stretch and adjustments, and basically a team that finished solidly against a quality opponent.
And then there was third-seeded Duke on Friday.
Mercer, a 14th-seed, found this dancing thing very much to its liking and began the second day of the second round of the NCAA tournament with a bracket-busting 78-71 win over Duke at PNC Arena.
“They’re not just a good team; they’re an outstanding team,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “So well-coached. You can tell those guys that played a lot of basketball together, and (Langston) Hall leads them so well.”
About 1,000 Mercer fans – including six busloads of students – as well as the band, cheerleaders, dance team and Toby the Mascot made the trip from Macon, Ga., and made some quality noise to, well, just losing their minds afterward.
The Bears rushed to the edge of the court in front of the Mercer section and reacted like a midmajor team that beat Duke 30 miles from the Tar Heels’ campus should: hugging, yelling and dancing.
There was plenty of energy to dance after a game with nine ties and 13 lead changes, Mercer having answers all the way.
“Our guys believed they could win, which is also another major thing that transpired (Friday),” said Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman. “You can conquer anything if you have the belief they do in each other and their skill set.”
Mercer, which trailed by one at halftime, got Duke’s complete attention by taking a five-point lead early in the second half, with the Blue Devils responding with an 8-0 run. Parker’s three-point play and Tyler Thornton’s three free throws gave Duke a 63-58 lead with 4:52 left.
And then it became a matter of will and execution. The Bears had more of both.
Daniel Coursey’s turnaround got the roll, and then Anthony White Jr., who had a key tip-in moments earlier, took a sharp pass from Hall and drained a 3 to tie it.
Duke had empty possessions while the Bears countered with two Gollon free throws, a Coursey dunk and free throw and one free throw from Hall. That made it 69-66 Mercer with 46 seconds left.
White hauled in a long pass from Thomas on the inbounds play for a layup to make it 71-66, and there was serious madness in the air. Improbably, the margin reached 10 for a few seconds before Quinn Cook hit a final-second 3.
Mercer will play Tennessee for the second straight year in a national tournament. The Bears beat the Volunteers, 75-67, in last year’s NIT.
Gollon led five Bears in double figures with 20 points.