RALEIGH — The Mercer locker room was filled with laughter Friday, filled with lively talk about the upset of Duke and what it meant to the Mercer program, when a famous coach popped his head in the door.
It was Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who stopped by to say a few words.
“You guys are a helluva basketball team,” Krzyzewski said, the room quickly silenced. “You played a helluva game. If we had to be beaten, I’m glad it was by a helluva team.”
With that, Krzyzewski was gone. So was Duke, its NCAA tournament over, its season at an end.
Moments earlier, Mercer center Daniel Coursey had brought up Krzyzewski and how it was surreal to be talking about a 78-71 victory over No. 3 seed Duke in the NCAA tournament at PNC Arena. Suddenly, Krzyzewski was standing just a few feet away.
“Coach K is one of the most famous coaches ever,” Coursey said. “Growing up, watching Duke, you’d see him at AAU tournaments and everyone was whispering, ‘There’s Coach K, there’s Coach K’ …
“For him to just come in here and tell us we’re a great basketball team, it’s pretty unbelievable, to tell you the truth.”
But the 14th-seeded Bears (27-8) made a lot of believers over the course of 40 minutes while winning their first NCAA tournament game. They did it with a team that started five seniors in every game this season, that won the Atlantic Sun title, that never lost its poise against the Blue Devils in the Midwest Region game played 30 minutes from Duke’s campus.
“At the beginning of the season I never thought we could take down a team like Duke,” Coursey said.
That feeling changed quickly once the Blue Devils and Bears were on the PNC Arena court and able to size up each other.
“Once the shock value left and we got in the huddle at the first media (timeout), we were saying, ‘We can beat these guys, man. They’re not as good as everyone hypes them up to be,’ ” Coursey said. “We felt we were a good team and if we hung together we could beat them.”
Coursey said part of the game plan was to contain Duke freshman Jabari Parker, not let him have a monster game. Mercer mixed up its defenses and defenders, often having 6-foot-6 forward Jakob Gollon man up on Parker, who had 14 points.
Another part of the Bears’ plan: Hold Duke to fewer than six made 3-pointers. The Blue Devils made 15, but it didn’t rattle the Bears.
“They have pros and they’re going to make tough shots,” said Ike Nwamu, a sophomore guard from Greensboro. “We needed to stay poised and keep playing, and that’s what we did.”
Duke led 35-34 at the half, and the Bears even faced some adversity at the break. They returned to their locker room, only to find the door jammed.
The Bears quickly adapted, beginning their halftime skull session in the hallway until the door could be opened.
Early the second half, the Blue Devils led 38-36 and were looking to turn up their defensive intensity. Mercer had trouble getting into an offensive set, but Bears coach Bob Hoffman called for a re-set and Langston Hall knocked down a 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down.
No panic, no rush. Just sound, solid execution.
“Our guys stay focused … and stay collected in those heated moments,” Gollon said.
There would be more heated moments, but the Bears would force turnovers – a bad pass, a shot-clock violation, traveling. They continued to hit shots – a jumper by Coursey, a 3-ball by White, a three-point play by Coursey on a power move to the basket – and then finished it off with free throws as five players closed in double figures.
“Everybody made huge plays. No one had a bad game,” Coursey said.
The Bears were angry a year ago when Florida Gulf Coast beat them in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game, on their home floor in Macon, Ga. Watching Florida Gulf Coast become a hot story in the NCAA tournament – while Mercer was in the NIT – was good for the A-Sun but bad for their psyches, knowing it could have been them.
“That’s something we had in our heads throughout the whole season, starting in the summer,” senior guard Anthony White Jr. said.
This season, Mercer won the league title on Florida Gulf Coast’s court, settling that score. Now, it’s Mercer’s time in the NCAAs. They woke up Friday 0-2 all-time in the NCAA tournament. On Sunday, they’ll play for a spot in the Sweet 16.
“Mercer is a small school and most people don’t know where it is,” junior forward Darious Moten said. “They’re going to know about us now. Any time you watch ‘March Madness’ you’re going to see clips of us beating Duke.”