The third wave of fans crossed the Potomac River into Washington today, and the hue was decidedly Carolina Blue.
“It’s not a tournament until Carolina arrives,” one fan opined.
Two fans showing their UNC colors were having coffee on a sidewalk table outside Greene Sports Bar & Grill, next door to the Verizon Center.
Chris Halley, 48, of Austin, Texas, is one of those subway Tar Heels who didn’t attend the school but adopted the basketball team.
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“I’m a lifelong Carolina fan,” Halley insisted. “I grew up watching Dean Smith and Phil Ford in the middle 70s and just fell in love with North Carolina basketball. I’ve been a fan ever since, even went to seven Final Fours. There’s a big contingent of Carolina fans in Austin.”
His friend, Joe Zimmerman, 47, has a different story. “I went to N.C. State (class of 1992), but I’m a Carolina fan,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
Halley plans to attend his eighth Final Four next month in Houston. “Oh yeah, I’m gonna be there,” whether the Tar Heels are or not.
In the meantime, Halley said he and Zimmerman have plans to do some sightseeing.
“This is my first trip to D.C.,” Halley noted “We just got in yesterday. We’re going to the Legends brunch Friday, then maybe the Holocaust Museum and World War II Memorial.”
Neither fan was anticipating a renewal of the “Battle of the Blues,” the possible third showdown this season of top-seeded UNC and fifth-seeded Duke in Friday’s semifinals. The Tar Heels first have to deal with eighth-seeded Pitt in Thursday’s opener, and then the Blue Devils will tangle with fourth-seeded Notre Dame in the second game of the day.
“To be honest with you, I think Notre Dame will beat Duke today,” Halley said. “They beat them at Duke.”
“Yeah, those jump shots have got to stop falling sometime,” Zimmerman added. “They’ve got to be tired today” (after the Blue Devils’ protracted 92-89 win Wednesday over N.C. State).
“We are of course pulling for Notre Dame,” Halley said. “I really like their guards, especially (Demetrius) Jackson, and (center Zach) Auguste.”
The Blue Devils ended up losing 84-79 in overtime to the Irish.
In the stands
And the Duke response: Steve and Karen Milner of Greenville, S.C., were in their seats in Section 106 of the Verizon Center bright and early Thursday morning in advance of the day’s first game, a noon tipoff between UNC and Pitt.
Steve, a Duke grad in the class of 1975, said they have been coming to the ACC Tournament for 15 years now.
“We just love basketball, so we’re always early,” Steve said. “We watch just about every game, every year. We were here for Wednesday’s games. We plan on staying through Saturday night.”
So will there be a “Battle of the Blues III” on Friday? Duke and UNC haven’t met up for a third time in a season since the ACC Tournament championship game in 2011, when Duke prevailed 75-58 in Greensboro.
“I’d love to see it,” Steve said. “Duke’s been a little shorthanded all year. Obviously Carolina has a pretty good team. They have more depth than Duke does. I think it would be pretty much like the first one. But anything can happen.”
The “first one” he was referencing was Duke’s come-from-behind 74-73 victory at Chapel Hill on Feb 17. Not the 76-72 Duke loss at Durham last Saturday.
Back on the beat: Count the Stranj Stringzz Band among ACC Tournament fans. The two-man jazz-rock combo was back on the corner of F and 7th Streets, outside the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop Thursday doing a brisk business with early-arriving basketball enthusiasts.
“We’re here every day pretty much,” said Luke “Stringwalker” Williams, who plays acoustic guitar with Mike – “just Mike” – on drums. With thousands of fans arriving each day for hoops, it’s an especially profitable location adjacent to the Verizon Center, and they’ve been entertaining appreciative fans there for the past two days.
Stringwalker has been channeling the musical force “since the ‘60s,” he said. “I love that I can do this now. This is our passion. These days and times are wild. People want to blow up the country. Kids aren’t safe in school or church.”
He said he prefers it to his actual vocation.
“I’m a mechanic,” he said, displaying his hands. “But guitars and cars don’t work together.”
Coke vs. Pepsi: If a member of the media tries to bring a soft drink or a bottle of water into the press seating alongside the court at the Verizon Center, arena officials will swoop down upon you and make you remove the label from the plastic bottle or pour the contents of the can into a nondescript plastic cup.
The reason isn’t safety. It’s branding.
You see, the Verizon Center is a Pepsi arena, but one of the ACC’s biggest sponsors is Coca-Cola. There are Coke cans and Dasani water bottles everywhere in the press work room, but none courtside where the offending label might show up on television.
However, the ACC has struck a blow for its own branding. Somebody cut out the labels from a Coca-Cola 12-pack and placed them over the Pepsi insignia on the drink cooler in the press room.