by Kent Sterling
If the Duke program were run by anyone but Mike Krzyzewski, students and alums would storm Cameron Indoor Stadium to remove him by force after dumping first round NCAA games to Lehigh and Mercer in two of the last three years.
Quaint Mercer, the 14-seed who dared to believe, finished the job today 78-71 against the Blue Devils the old fashioned way – they flat outplayed them.
Duke shot an incredible 37 threes, making 15, and dominated the offensive glass by grabbing 16 of their own misses. The game was won at the line as Mercer made 23-28 foul shots while Duke converted 12-13. The disparity was a matter of style, with Duke settling for jumpers as Mercer took the ball to the rack.
There is some joy for the justice wrought by those who smite the Dallas Cowboys of college basketball. There is little doubt that Krzyzewski is the best coach in America, and Duke the premiere program. When they are forced to accept their fallibility and mortality, there is a reason to celebrate just a little. Mercer made a lot of people smile today.
Mercer is a little school in Macon, Georgia, with 8,300 students. Bill Hodges, Larry Bird’s collegiate coach at Indiana State, was the head coach there for a few years in the 1990s. Other than that piece of trivia, they have done nothing that distinguishes them among hundreds of other small schools trying to find the combination to the lock that protects the dream.
Bob Hoffman is the guy who put together this Atlantic Sun Conference team that shocked a world that no one believed could be shocked again after yesterday’s carnage. He seems an affable sort who loves being at Mercer enough to not let this win go to his head.
Last year, Mercer was beaten at home by Florida Gulf Coast to start Andy Enfield’s miracle run as the first 15-seed to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16 and out the door to a nice gig at USC. On March 9th, Mercer returned the favor by going to Fort Meyers and beating FGCU for the conference’s lone bid to the Big Dance.
To equal Enfield’s magic, Hoffman will need to find a way to beat the winner of UMass and Tennessee. A 14-seed has made it past the first weekend only twice in 29 years.
The first was a team that Indiana fans were all too familiar with – Cleveland State in 1986 with a point guard named Mouse McFadden, who ended IU’s season on the brink. The second was Chattanooga in 1997. Hoffman will try to make Mercer the third.
But as fun as it was to watch Hoffman yell with glee at sideline reporter Rachel Nichols and the players dance the way only euphoric 20-year-olds are able, this postgame was about Coach K watching another really good chance to win a national championship slip through his 67-year old fingers.
Krzyzewski shows no signs of slowing down, other than the two outrageous upset losses today and in 2012, and there is no doubt that he’ll be back for at least a few more of these, but the clock is ticking, and you know he hears it.
Mercer heard nothing but cheers today as they figured out a way to hang on until a couple of late shots would make Duke uncomfortable enough to gak up the game.
So one of the four blue bloods that appeared ready to head to Indianapolis for next weekend’s regional is gone, leaving Louisville, Michigan, and Kentucky to driving secondary ticket market prices and local fan interest. Kentucky plays at 9:40p tonight, and the Cardinals and Wolverines have already won their first round games.
Mercer beat Duke. It just does’t sound right, but it’s great music for some ballers from Georgia to dance to.