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Friday, March 21, 2014
Confident seniors carry Mercer

By C.L. Brown



RALEIGH, N.C. -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was navigating the back halls of PNC Arena with his wife and police escort when he passed a few steps by Mercer’s locker room, the buzz still fresh and tangible from the Bears’ 78-71 upset of the Blue Devils.

Krzyzewski backtracked and made his way inside, at first unnoticed, while Bears players were virtual celebrities surrounded by camera crews and reporters. Krzyzewski congratulated their victory and saved his biggest compliment for his last statement.

“If we had to be beaten,” Krzyzewski said, “I’m glad we got beat by a hell of a basketball team.”

It was the only time on Friday that Mercer was in awe of Duke’s presence.

Mercer Celebration
Mercer, playing in its first NCAA tournament since 1985, won its first tournament game in school history.
It might not have meant much to outsiders, but the No. 14 seed Bears have had the most successful three-year run in school history. They won the 2012 CollegeInsider.com Tournament and beat Tennessee -- their opponent in Sunday’s third round -- in the first round of the NIT last season before losing to BYU. Add to that the fact that they start five seniors and bring two more off the bench and they are very secure in who they are.

They’re used to winning, even if Friday's was the school’s first win in the NCAA tournament.

“This is probably one of our biggest wins ever,” junior Darious Moten said. “Beating Duke will always be in the history books. Anytime you watch March Madness, there will be clips of us beating Duke.”

Going against Duke’s Jabari Parker, who is likely a lottery pick when he declares for the NBA, didn’t faze them. Even after Mercer held Parker to 4-of-14 shooting for 14 points, forward Jakob Gollon’s admiration for Parker's skills hadn’t changed.

“He’s a beast,” said Gollon, a Stevens Point, Wisc., native. “I hope the [Milwaukee] Bucks draft him next year.”

Duke’s Rodney Hood could also be in the NBA next season. Mercer held him to a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting.

It was the first postseason appearance for Parker and Hood and it showed. Parker had four turnovers, his highest total since having five in Duke’s win over Syracuse in late February. Hood had three turnovers to go with his five assists but was often in situations in which he didn’t know what to do with the ball.

“Once I got the ball,” Hood said, “I saw 10 eyes. I had to give the ball up because I didn’t want to force it.”

Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said his game plan was to double-team Parker and Hood from every angle. By making the duo give up the ball, it led to Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon combining for 12 3-pointers for the Blue Devils. But it prevented Parker and Hood from getting into a groove.

“We were going to run at them no matter where we were when they bounced it, no matter where we were on the floor, and they ended up hitting 3s because of it,” Hoffman said. “In the second half, we didn’t do as much trapping. We tried to bluff, but what I thought it did was make them hesitant a little bit, so they started looking around.”

Duke Dejection
For the second time in three years, Duke will not advance past its first NCAA tournament game.
An emotional Parker was still searching for answers after the game. He was asked if he’d consider turning pro and he told ESPN.com that his Duke career was “incomplete” and he “didn’t care about the rankings” of where he’d be picked. But when asked if he needed to separate himself from the emotion of the loss before he made any decision Parker replied, “I think so.”

The difference in the game was that while Duke looked around searching for answers, Mercer already had them. It started with Hoffman and trickled down to the seniors.

The first impression of Hoffman hasn’t always been the best one. His wife, Kelli, admitted that she didn’t see herself dating him when the two first met. Gollon said he didn’t know what to think of the new coach who flew to Wisconsin to see him play.

But Hoffman has a way of winning people over. With his wife, it was going out for a Coca-Cola on a date that included his buddies. For Gollon and guard Langston Hall, it was hearing Hoffman say they could help him build something special at Mercer.

“Once you put all those pieces together and you work so hard on team-building, as we do, and our guys work on believing in each other, that’s a huge element of our success,” Hoffman said. “Whether it’s me giving [confidence] to them or them giving it to me, it’s a pingpong deal, it goes back and forth, and it’s fun to watch.”

There was never any panic on the Mercer bench even when it seemed the Blue Devils were beginning to get some separation late in the first half. Duke led by seven, its biggest lead of the game, only to have reserve Ike Nwamu score six points during an 11-3 run that temporarily gave Mercer the lead. Nwamu scored all 11 of his points in the first half.

The Blue Devils took a 63-58 lead with just less than five minutes left in the game. Mercer responded with consecutive baskets, including a 3-pointer from senior Anthony White Jr. -- that Krzyzewski called the biggest shot of the game.

“We knew we were going to have to play tough-minded basketball and not get into the mindset that if they had a run on us that we just threw our hands up,” Hoffman said.

With the victory secure, the Bears came across the court to greet their fans, and reserve senior guard Kevin Canevari broke out in dance as the team circled around him. Only then, when they threw their collective hands up, did Hoffman finally smile and celebrate, too.