Duke students savor another title

Gritty team surprises fans

Staff WriterApril 6, 2010 

— An ear-splitting din that grew louder with every Blue Devil basket culminated in cacophony as the last-second Butler heave missed by scant inches, and Duke was the national champion for the fourth time.

The 4,500 or so students who watched on the big screen at Cameron Indoor Stadium had a signature memory to lock away for the grandkids.

"I never thought I'd witness this," said Lance Poole, a graduate student from High Point, pausing from his post-game gyrations just long enough to piece together a coherent thought. "This team, nobody thought they'd do it. Maybe the Sweet 16. No, this is extra special, and everybody feels it."

All night, Cameron Indoor pulsed with anticipation - the antsy, expectant crowd looking to unleash a collective scream. Students with painted faces chanted "Let's Go Duke" in unison, swayed and hopped around as if on pogo sticks, cheered with every basket made and groaned at every missed opportunity.

At the end, they stormed their home court.

Though Duke's hoops program is one of the true bluebloods - a hall of fame coach and 15 Final Fours on the resume, its last Final Four appearance was a 2004 national semifinals loss to Connecticut, the eventual champs.

Monday night's championship, many students said, restored order to the universe.

And they made the most of the opportunity, many treating the warm, sunny Monday as a personal holiday, swilling of lots of cheap beer and taking advantage of the warm weather as dozens of students waited to get in Cameron to watch the game.

"For some reason, we still have classes today," said Stefan Streckfus, a sophomore from Pinehurst. "But nobody's really there."

Eric Wheeler and Willie Du lined up six hours early to get in Cameron. And waited. And waited. And quaffed some brew. And some water. And some more brew. And tossed a tennis ball. And waited.

Wheeler is a senior. He'd been waiting for this night for four years.

"I was worried there for a while," he said. "It's now or never, right? You sort of feel like you deserve to get to a Final Four."

Alums too reveled in the victory. For them, too, it had been too long.

"We kind of fell off the charts and have been fighting to get back again," said David Ahern, class of '99, a New Jersey native now living and working in Durham. Ahern was courtside in 1999, a Duke pep band member just 20 feet from the court when a heavily favored Duke team was beaten by Connecticut for the national title.

"It's been a while," he said. "It gets a little frustrating, seeing UNC have so much success."

A year ago, UNC had the crown.

This year, Duke has wrenched bragging rights away once again.

"As an alum around here, you're constantly reminded of it," Ahern said. "I don't work with anybody who went to Duke, so the last five years have been constant reminders of our early tournament flameouts."

It had been a long time since the students had celebrated a championship around the traditional campus bonfire, but Duke's flames were burning hot Monday night.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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