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 in Raleigh.
“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 and made some quality noise, from the requisite “I believe that we will chant” before the game 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 mid-major team that beat Duke 30 miles from its campus should: hugging and yelling and, of course, dancing.
There was plenty of energy to dance after a game with nine ties and 13 lead changes, Mercer having answers all afternoon.
“Our guys believed they could win, which is also another major thing that transpired (Friday),” said Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman, who spent a good chunk of time with national media afterward. “You can conquer anything if you have the belief they do in each other and their skill set.”
The first answer for the Bears came when they trailed by seven for the second time in the first half, Duke’s largest lead of the day.
Ike Nwamu hit two free throws, giving Jabari Parker his first foul, and then Bud Thomas scored on a teardrop shot in the lane. Duke’s Rodney Hood hit a 3, but Nwamu scored on a tip-in and layup, and Jake Gollon a 3-pointer for a temporary lead before settling for a one-point halftime deficit for Mercer.
Mercer 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 to get back on top. Parker’s three-point play and Tyler Thornton’s three free throws then 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.
“The kid, White, hit a huge, that 3 that he had … that tied the game was the biggest shot of the game, I thought,” Krzyzewski said. “Because we played really good defense on that, and they showed the maturity that they have where they, all of a sudden, they can look at all their options, and he was it.”