I've only taken one walk of shame in my entire Duke career.
And let me tell you, it wasn't pretty.
I had been waiting more than two months for this particular Saturday night rendezvous. March 4, 2006-a date I'll never forget. I entered that evening as a wide-eyed freshman, hopeful and excited, only to walk all the way back to East Campus from Cameron Indoor Stadium as a basketball lover scorned.
No. 1 Duke 76, No. 13 North Carolina 83.
I think my friends and I would have considered ourselves the most devastated people on the planet that night, if we hadn't just seen J.J. Redick cry at center court.
The somber sight of the greatest scorer in ACC history in tears-and its contrast to the pregame image of Lee Melchionni kissing the same spot of Coach K Court in blissful gratitude-has, sadly enough, come to define Duke Basketball over the last three years.
What a long and strange walk it has been.
There have been a few Melchionni-floor-smooch-type highs, sure. Last season's win at North Carolina, the Dock Shot and Dave McClure's buzzer-beater over Clemson in 2007 are the first things that come to mind. But there also have been some J.J.-waterworks-type-lows, like the finishes to both of the past two NCAA Tournaments.
These contrasting stories-of great success, untimely collapses and poignant characters-are what make tonight's game so compelling, beyond the fact that it's Duke against North Carolina.
And these same stories are also why starting Greg Paulus tonight seems so right.
As a senior, Paulus has been through it all. Walking into the starting point guard job on a top-ranked team in 2006, guiding a rebuilding squad that caught national flak in 2007 and facing what I only can imagine to be brutal emotions associated with recovering from injury and losing that starting honor.
In the evolving narrative that is Duke Basketball, Paulus' career seems to reflect the emotions and the progress of the program and its fans. Our freshman year was supposed to be the fairytale one, with J.J. and Shelden Williams taking down the Tar Heels at home en route to the Final Four. And now, in our senior year, we have one last shot at defeating North Carolina in Cameron. Despite three years of heartbreak, we're putting ourselves out there-Paulus quite literally-one last time.
The order, though, seems pretty tall, especially given Duke's last two performances and UNC's position as an NCAA title favorite.
Then again, the order was taller for the Tar Heels coming into Cameron three years ago, when their four freshmen-Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard-outscored Duke's six seniors 55-51, and Redick made only one of his last 16 shots on the night.
The Blue Devils can win this game tonight. They really can.
But they're going to need to shoot lights out from the field. They're going to need their guards to exploit the Tar Heels' defensive weakness (hole on perimeter D, thy name is Ty Lawson). And they're going to need to concede the fact that Hansbrough is going to get his points in the paint and instead focus their energies on stopping UNC's backcourt production.
I don't think I ever quite understood the Duke-UNC rivalry until now, realizing how desperate some of my classmates, who have tented all four years, are to see a victory.
One of my friends even told me the other day that she would rather see a win at home over North Carolina than see Duke go to the Final Four this year.
Although I'm not that big of a Crazie, I wouldn't mind getting a little lucky tonight in Cameron.
The walk home is always better that way.
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