BUNKER MENTALITY: Into the Devil’s Den

As some of you know, the Yard Sale Queen and I are UVA sports fanatic.

March Madness is here and my beloved Hoos men’s basketball team is ranked No 1 in the country, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and sport a 31-2 record. They won all 9 ACC road games and set a record by winning 17 of 18 ACC regular season games. They finished the season as both ACC  regular season and tournament champions.

But getting to this point proved nerve wracking.

Several days before Jan. 27, I was having nightmares, waking in a cold sweat – that is when I slept – and just generally stressing.

You see my then-second-ranked Cavaliers men’s basketball team was travelling to Durham, North Carolina to play the fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium – a place the Cavaliers had not won since 1995.

So why was I stressing about my then-19-1 team (8-0 in the ACC)? Well, because I was going to the game. I had never gone to another school’s venue to watch and root for my Cavaliers.

I had dreams of angry Blue Devil fans taunting and harassing the few UVA fans that dared to show up and wear orange – bright orange.

My brother and sister-in-law hold season tickets for Duke men’s basketball. They graduated from Duke. They invited me to the game and booked a room for me in a hotel within walking distance of the basketball venue. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Well, we still needed to play the game.

At the hotel, as I proudly sported my UVA colors, I was greeted with a pleasant surprise. Walking through the lobby was UVA redshirt freshman Francesco Badocchi. The Yard Sale Queen and I met him and walk-on Austin Katstra at our favorite Charlottesville restaurant at breakfast one morning. I told them I would be at the Duke game to cheer them on.

Suddenly, I spotted Devon Hall walking with Ty Jerome. I spoke to both and told them bring us a win.

Then I noticed Justice Bartley, who just two weeks before had been awarded a full scholarship, by Coach Tony Bennett.

These guys are tall. Very tall.

Before the game, my brother, sister-in-law and I walked the campus, stopping for lunch in the beautiful student center. Wearing bright orange, I stood out like a third eye. Everywhere people wore Duke blue. My family sported Duke blue and gray.

A few fans engaged me in pleasant conversation, talking about Duke’s high-powered offense versus the Hoos’ suffocating defense. It was friendly banter with the decision left to 40 minutes on the hardwood.

My family introduced me to a Duke Athletic Department official they know. As he shook my hand, he looked at my UVA apparel and with a smile said, “Eww,” as he quickly withdrew his hand. We all laughed.

The Duke fans couldn’t have been any nicer. My nightmares were totally off base.

While wandering near the arena before game time, a couple wearing UVA attire said hello and introduced themselves as the grandparents of  Isaiah Wilkins, a senior captain forward. We chatted for about 10 minutes.

If you have never been to Cameron Indoor Stadium, I can only describe it as rowdy. The students command most of the lower level – it’s standing room only for them. They are almost on the court. They are called Cameron Crazies for a reason.

The acoustics are awful and the place is hot when packed with 9,300 raucous Duke fans.

The game was a see-saw affair with UVA’s stingy defense prevailing over Duke’s powerful offense.

A 20-something man wearing a UVA T-shirt was sitting in the row in front of us with his mother, who was wearing a Duke shirt.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the outcome still in doubt, I told him, “Breathe, it will be OK.” And it was. The Cavaliers won 65-63.

The crowd of noisy Duke fans grew eerily quiet as they slowly exited.

A few fans came up to me and congratulated me on the UVA win, saying it was a good game.

That it was.

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