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Virginia vs. Duke: My unforgettable experience with the Cameron Crazies

I watched Saturday’s game from among the Cameron Crazies. This is my tale.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, things on game day don’t pan out as you expected, and sometimes, that leads to an incredible experience. Such was the case for me on Saturday when I arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham for an epic matchup between the No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers and the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils. As a resident of the DC metro area, I drove the 4.5 hours from Northern Virginia to North Carolina for the game.

Thanks to a super-full press row for the game, I was left without a seat. As a solution—since it’s not ideal to drive 10 hours round trip to watch the game on a TV in the press room—the Duke staff came up with a suggestion.

“Do you want to watch with the Cameron Crazies?,” a member of Duke’s sports information team asked me, continuing, “...we need to know right away—like in the next 90 seconds - so we can get you in before more students come in.”

I paused, thinking first and foremost of my light gray new shirt I was wearing and what that might mean with the copious amounts of blue body paint I would surely be subjecting myself to, but that was a fleeting concern. There’s absolutely no way you pass that up.

“Yes. Yes, I’m in.”

There was still over an hour before tipoff, but we rushed out to the court and he ushered me to a spot among the Crazies. This wasn’t my first trip to Cameron, having covered the Virginia-Duke game in 2014 on a photo pass. This would be nothing like that.

I ended up in the second row, across from the Virginia bench and standing on the first bleacher riser, a wooden slat that was barely—if at all—wider than the length of my feet. At this point, the countdown clock on the scoreboard still read 60:00, and wasn’t even moving yet.

When I first jumped into the section, I talked to a couple of recent graduates that served as a type of line leader, helping keep the students who had already entered in close enough that those still waiting outside could all fit. If you’ve never been inside Cameron Indoor, it’s an interesting place. It’s incredibly small, full of history, and extremely warm. Not warm as in inviting of course, because opponents better be ready to hear some barbs when they arrive.

As players warmed up, there were cheers (for the Blue Devils) and jeers (for the Cavaliers). The Crazies would start a chant for one of their players (Gray-son All-en), and continue until they were acknowledged with a wave of the hand from that player.

Virginia v Duke
A Duke student works on his laptop computer outside Cameron Indoor Stadium prior to the game
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

According to a handful of students in front of me, most people started lining up in Krzyzewskiville—the tent village outside Cameron Indoor that determines who can get into a game—on the Wednesday before the game. Four days is a little bit longer than some games (but not as long as for a game with UNC). As one Crazy put it, for the “lesser games,” students will line up the morning of the game. The “tickets” (they’re really just passes) are free for undergrads, and you can register as a group. One member of your group has to stay in line to retain your spot, and there are random checks to ensure the rules are followed.

Once inside, there’s a lot of jostling for real estate and waiting. When Duke comes out everyone cheers and the phones are out to record everything. When Virginia comes out there are boos and the infamous hand wiggling. Suddenly, with maybe a minute left on the countdown clock and the teams lining up for the anthem, the entire arena (minus a handful of orange clad Wahoo fans) started slowly clapping with their hands coming together overhead.

“Oh, here we go,” I thought. “It’s time for Cascada.”

Turns out, they really, truly love it when that chorus revs up (though no one loves it as much as Grayson Allen.

Finally, with my feet already going numb, we get to the national anthem and starting lineups. One of the a cappella groups, Speak of the Devil, from on campus performed the anthem, and it was an absolutely breathtaking rendition. As for the starting lineups, I was super disappointed if we’re being honest. After each Virginia player was introduced, the Crazies would greet them with a “Hi, [enter opposing player’s first name here]. YOU SUCK!” that was very reminiscent of the University of Maryland.

Virginia v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Duke won the tip and went to work on the offense. Sixteen seconds in, megastar forward Wendell Carter hit a jumper. Cheers coursed through the crowd and turned into a level of noise I didn’t know was possible as Duke’s defense tried to come up with a stop to open the game. A Ty Jerome jumper missed and the noise somehow ratcheted up a notch as Bagley corralled the rebound.

“This is unreal,” I thought to myself, unable to move and marveling at the enthusiasm of the crowd, many of which - based on the smell - spent a long time drinking either the night before or that morning (hey, it’s judgement).

You’re much closer to the floor at Cameron than John Paul Jones Arena, allowing you a little more access to some of the action on the court. It’s easier to see and hear things during the game that you normally don’t in a broadcast or a few rows back (like Allen taunting Guy with shouts of “all day, all day” while he’s guarding him...right before he fouls Guy and gives him three free throws).

The Blue Devils jumped out to a 6-3 lead after a monster dunk by Bagley, but the Hoos got back-to-back scores from Kyle Guy and Jerome, the latter of which finished off a backdoor cut for an easy layup (this will come up in a minute). The surrounding fans grew restless as Duke’s next four offensive possessions went like this: turnover, turnover, missed three, turnover.

“Why make that pass,” someone grumbled. “What was he thinking,” another said.

A couple jumpers and a steal and dunk by Gary Trent Jr. cut Virginia’s lead to 14-12 with 11:07 to play in the first half and ignited the crowd. The previous din that I thought couldn’t get any louder had the feeling of a small fighter jet in my head.

With 5:42 to play,

Jerome ran the same back cut and easily scored once again. To my immediate left, Duke women’s lacrosse player Kyra Harney shook her head. “You can’t let him beat you like that again,” she said with a disappointed tone in her voice. “They just ran that play. It’s too easy.” Harney became one of my favorites in the crowd early in the game as she called out double teams for the Duke big men as they developed on the court in front of us, and the astute observation on Virginia running the same plays successfully reinforced that assessment.

The rest of the half went in Virginia’s favor as the Hoos easily cut through Duke’s man-to-man defense and took a 32-22 lead into halftime, thanks to Guy’s 10 points and another nine from Devon Hall.

I could spend 500 words on how uncomfortable halftime was as the folks behind me sat down (which wasn’t an option for where I was), but let’s just say it was extraordinarily not ideal. Having someone’s knees digging into your calves as you press against some poor soul’s shoulder as you attempt to stay standing is an experience I don’t ever wish to repeat.

As the Crazies got back to their feet to prepare for the second half, a shirtless student covered in cracked blue body paint and donning a bright blue wig stood in front of us.

“COME ON YOU GUYS!” He shouted to the group emphatically. A couple fans yelled nondescript cheers back. “When did you line up?” the superfan asked, gesturing to a student in front of me. “Wednesday? You didn’t line up all that time to lose. LET’S GO. GET LOUD. If you think we don’t matter, you’re f**king wrong!”

More cheers rallied around me as the blue man returned to his seat standing space.

A three by Hall on Virginia’s opening possession pushed the lead to 13. Then, the Blue Devils happened. The Duke defense came out in a 2-3 zone for the second half, and while they weren’t particularly effective at preventing open shots for Virginia, the Cavaliers couldn’t get them to drop. Duke went on a 9-0 run over a 3:29 span to start the second half and each missed shot by Virginia added a little bit more fuel to the simmering Cameron Crazy fire waiting to erupt.

Trailing 37-31, Trevon Duval drove the lane on a fast break and found Gary Trent Jr. in the corner, wide open. He buried the trey, Duke’s first of the game (they went 0-for-7 in the first half from three). I think I took an elbow to the ribs from my right and a knee in the back from behind, but bedlam had erupted in the stands and limbs couldn’t expect to be controlled. They could taste the comeback. I felt sick.

With 14:23 to play in the game,

Carter lobbed up what looked like an intended pass to Bagley for an alley-oop. While the ball was in the air, Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins was whistled for a foul on Bagley under the basket, and the lob pass fell easily through the cylinder. Initially, the bucket was waved off, much to the chagrin of those wearing blue. After a review, the shot counted, and Duke was awarded possession under the basket where Duval found Bagley for an easy dunk on the inbounds play. “Oh no,” I thought.

Just like that, we were tied at 39 with tons of time left on the clock. It felt as though someone had chummed the water. Each time I thought it couldn’t possibly get louder, my eardrums quaked. Then, Bagley put Duke ahead for the first time since it was 6-5.

Virginia v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

To be honest, it was incredible. It was the kind of noise you didn’t so much hear, but could feel in your chest. Somehow, there seemed to be less space than there was before, and the temperature had creeped up even more.

Jack Salt evened the score at 41—Virginia’s first bucket since Salt flushed home a dunk two-and-a-half minutes before—and gave the Hoos the slight lead as he converted the three point play. (Side note: Salt was phenomenal in the game, going 3-for-3 from the floor, 1-for-1 from the line, and added two blocks and two steals with no turnovers.) Yet another Bagley move inside (he’s unreal, by the way), gave Duke a 46-42 advantage with 10:14 to play, and it felt like the lid was going to come off the place.

Virginia refused to go away, however. DeAndre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite pulled the visiting Cavaliers back to even, each UVA basket and Duke turnover punctuated with obscenities and groans from my compatriots in the stands.

When Bagley got a super-friendly home bounce on a three from the top of the arc that put Duke ahead 49-46, there was a “this is Duke’s night” feeling that overtook the crowd. Around me, students flung their hands in the air and began screaming with a renewed energy. At the same time, you could see the Virginia contingent directly across from me slump with the unspoken yet unmistakeable “here we go again” feeling.

Once again, Virginia found shots when needed, answering each punch in the mouth issued by the Blue Devils via Allen layups and Bagley tip-ins. Tied (for the fourth time in the game) at 53, Hunter drove the lane, splitting Bagley and Carter for a gorgeous finger roll. As the ball dropped through the hoop, Hunter landed awkwardly on Carter’s foot and collapsed to the floor. Immediately, the previously raucous crowd quieted.

Hunter left the floor with assistance, and from there, Virginia never trailed again. It wasn’t without excitement, however. The Hoos took a 60-55 lead with 3:20 remaining when Guy hit a corner three over the closing Bagley. For a moment, the Cameron Crazies quieted once again, stunned at Guy’s big shot and lamenting the fact that the scrawny kid that used to have a man-bun just came up so big (spoiler: he wasn’t a crowd favorite).

Duke pulled it to 60-58 with a thunderous dunk from Bagley after shaking (read: charging through) the potential ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Isaiah Wilkins. Once again, the pressure was on the Cavaliers, a team that has no players who were alive the last time Virginia won at Cameron.

I was handling things great:

Guy missed a three, giving the Blue Devils an opportunity to tie or take the lead with just over a minute left. Duval, who rebounded the missed shot, went for the home run pass hoping to connect with Carter. Instead, the 6’5 Jerome jumped the passing lane, doing his best impression of a cornerback and putting the ball in Virginia’s court (literally).

Then, this happened with 39 seconds left on the clock:

Luckily, I happened to have the wherewithal (and the fleeting elbow room) to attempt to record a big moment...and man, did I luck out.

Silence crept through Cameron Indoor as the Virginia fans in attendance lost their minds. “How did he do that?” I heard a couple rows back, though most sentiments are just expletives or stunned expressions.

Missed front ends of Virginia one-and-ones by Guy and Jerome (his first free throw miss of the season) gave the Duke fans one last semblance of hope, aided by a three-point make by Bagley with eight seconds left. Grayson Allen fouled Guy again, despite his chin’s best efforts to influence the game otherwise. This sent the second year player to the free throw line with a two point lead, five seconds on the clock, and another chance to ice the game.

Now, I won’t type all the things I heard yelled at Guy at this moment, but trust me, they weren’t nice. He wasn’t going to miss these, however, calmly sinking both and putting Virginia up 65-61. Bagley would get the last of his 30 points in the game with a layup at the buzzer, but it was done. Virginia would snag the win.

Guy loved every second of playing in an environment like Cameron. “I don’t think it’s intimidating.” Guy said post game. “I think that it is one of the best environments in college basketball, and all of sports for that matter. I don’t know why crowds always target me, it was even like that when I was in high school. Someone tweeted I had the most punchable face in America, so you know, I just sort of feed of that.”

In fact, he wished his (in)famous coiffure from last season was still around. “I wish, I honestly wish I had kept it [the bun] for this game,” he said with a huge grin. “It would have been terrible. I love it. I feed off of this kind of stuff.”

One thing that was clear through this endeavor that while yes, there were the fans in the group that would randomly yell “F**K VIRGINIA! F**K YOU TONY BENNETT”, the majority of them (at least most of them near me) were fans who appreciate the game and those that play it. As the fans waited to leave (the team has to get off the court first, then they sing what I assume is the alma mater), the overall sentiment was “damn, that sucks”, “oh well, they’re a really good team”, or “hey that was a good comeback”.

The loss was the first for Duke at home this season, scoring just 63 points (about 30 under their average coming into the game). With the defeat, the Blue Devils fell to 18-3 (6-3 ACC).

All of those things are big feathers for Virginia’s cap. But silencing the Cameron Crazies?

“It’s one of the best feelings it basketball,” Jerome stated. “It’s amazing.”

The Hoos returned to Charlottesville with a 20-1 overall record, a 9-0 conference record, a three game lead in the ACC, and proof that they’re the real deal.

I went home with sore feet, ringing ears, and the understanding that I just had one of the most amazing sports experiences of my life. Thank you, Cameron Crazies.