RALEIGH — Just before the opening tip, the large, rowdy crowd of Mercer fans shot off orange and white streamers, chanting “I believe that we will win.” The chant was repeated with three minutes left in the game and Duke clinging to a 3-point lead.
And the Mercer fans were right. The No. 14-seed Bears, with their five starting seniors, beat the No. 3 Blue Devils, ending a season that began with so much promise. The final act for Duke: a 78-71 loss in the round of 64 in Raleigh.
The Blue Devils became the 18th No. 3 seed to drop their opening-round game to a No. 14. This is also the second time in three years that Duke lost its first game of the NCAA tournament to a double-digit seed.
“We just didn’t finish down the stretch,” Rasheed Sulaimon said as he sat on the floor, elbow propped up on a chair, staring straight ahead. “And that’s the story of our season.”
The Blue Devils (26-9) led 63-58 with 4:52 to go after Tyler Thornton hit three free throws. That was Duke’s largest lead of the half. And then Mercer (27-8) went on an 11-0 run.
Sulaimon, who along with Quinn Cook represented Duke’s best offensive option, airballed a 3 from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down, bringing the final media timeout with 3:09 left. Out of the Bears’ huddle, with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Anthony White Jr. hit an open 3 with Thornton too late to contest, tying the score.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout, and the ensuing play resulted in Jabari Parker, with his weight going backward, attempting a 3 with a hand in his face. He missed. Rodney Hood slipped on the ensuing defensive possession, fouling Jakob Gollon in the process, and the Bears senior made both of his one-and-one free throws. Hood traveled and then fouled on the defensive end again, as Daniel Coursey reached over him with an and-one slam. That was Hood’s fifth foul, ending his day with a season-low six points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field.
“Probably the worst game of my career,” Hood said, after taking several minutes to stop shaking and crying, finally removing his hands from his face. “This is a tough one to swallow.”
Duke’s other offensive pillar, Parker, struggled as well, contributing 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
“I could have done a better job, way better job,” he said.
The Bears, who beat last year’s Cinderella team, Florida Gulf Coast, in the Atlantic Sun conference championship, concentrated on plugging the lane, denying Duke driving space. Hood said that forced him to become a passer instead of a shooter.
“I had to go into more of a passing game instead of trying to take 1-on-5. When I did go 1-on-5, I turned the ball over,” Hood said. “Once I got the ball, I saw 10 eyes. I had to give the ball up, because I didn’t want to force it.”
Duke attempted 25 2-point shots, making just seven (28 percent). Two conversions came in the final minute. In lieu of driving, the Blue Devils attempted a season-high 37 3s, and they made 15 (40.5 percent). Duke also hit 15 3s in the loss at Syracuse.
But even though shots were falling from outside, the Blue Devils just couldn’t get stops. Mercer shot 55.6 percent overall, and it made 62.5 percent of its attempts from 2-point range.
“We’re a very unconventional team this year in that the only time we had an inside presence is if Jabari was really strong inside, and he did that a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “But that’s not really what he does. That’s not his strength. And so we’re always not real strong inside.”
Sulaimon, Thornton and Cook did their best to try and spark Duke for the final stretch. Cook shot 8-of-11 from the field, 7-of-10 from 3-point range, for a team-high 23 points. Sulaimon had 20, including two free throws that tied the score at 45 after he ripped the ball from Gollon near Duke’s basket. Cook grabbed Sulaimon’s jersey by the shoulders, got nose-to-nose, gave him a chest punch and fired him up. Cook did a similar thing to Thornton, minus the punch.
It was the polar opposite after the game, with Cook’s eyes red from crying.
“It just doesn’t feel real right now,” he said.
The finality was new, but it was the same story that played out at Notre Dame, Clemson, North Carolina and Wake Forest. Duke led late in the game. The defense proved incapable of closing it out.
“You know, look, our guys tried,” Krzyzewski said. “I have no fault with my team.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley