More than a month ago, long before No. 8 North Carolina lost in front of an electric crowd at Cameron indoor Stadium Thursday night, I walked into Cameron to see the Blue Devil women’s team face a different eighth-ranked opponent.
I didn’t expect an atmosphere like that of a Duke-North Carolina men’s game, of course, but I expected a decent crowd worthy of a matchup between two top-15 teams. I was in for a surprise.
The official announced attendance at the Blue Devils’ narrow 58-55 win against Louisville Jan. 2 was 3,309—a little more than one-third of Cameron’s capacity—and even that seemed very generous. I’ve seen better crowds at local high school games. More fans showed up to every single Duke women’s basketball home game last season, even a random New Year’s Eve blowout against UNC Greensboro, than that game against a top-10 team.
The reason for all the empty seats is obvious. The Blue Devils had a tumultuous, injury-riddled season in 2015-16, losing 12 games and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, and it got even worse in the offseason.
Star forward Azurá Stevens transferred to Connecticut and starting point guard Angela Salvadores left after just one year to play professionally in Spain. Shortly afterward, the athletic department began an internal investigation into player mistreatment in head coach Joanne P. McCallie’s program.
But after a five-week investigation, Kevin White, vice president and director of athletics, announced that McCallie would remain the team’s head coach.
That didn’t stop McCallie from receiving another wave of criticism for an interview she did with me last summer about the fallout from the investigation. She was defiant and at times dismissive of the issues that derailed Duke’s season last year, but the overarching message from that day was clear. McCallie was intensely loyal to the players that remained on her team, she felt they were loyal to her and she didn’t really care what anybody else thought about her program.
Duke’s players have responded to that loyalty from their coach, even if they have not received the same loyalty from the fans.
In case you stopped watching, you should know the Blue Devils are unbeaten at home this year with five wins against top-20 teams. Junior guard Lexie Brown is a legitimate All-American candidate and Rebecca Greenwell is an excellent secondary scoring option. Duke plays well together and has looked like a well-coached team.
McCallie, always considered more of a defensive-minded coach, has implemented an active matchup zone that has shut down some of the best frontcourts in the nation. The zone has fueled the Blue Devils’ top-ranked scoring defense in the ACC and helped them hold 21 consecutive opponents to fewer than 70 points.
I watched more Duke women’s basketball last season than almost anybody. I saw a lot of stagnant offense and unforced turnovers, and the pieces didn’t all fit together. But Brown has changed everything this year, giving the Blue Devils the poised and talented ball-handler they desperately needed.
So, if you are choosing not to support this team because of a petty vendetta against the head coach, you’re fighting a losing battle. Most coaches of top-15 teams sign contract extensions, not letters of resignation, though I certainly wouldn’t blame McCallie for jumping ship for a lucrative offer elsewhere after the way she has been treated in Durham.
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I have lived in Durham long enough to remember when a lot of people cared about Duke women’s basketball. People cared when the Blue Devils were six seconds from a national championship in 2006, and people cared when Duke went unbeaten in the regular season a year later in head coach Gail Goestenkors’ last year at the helm.
The Blue Devils sold out Cameron Indoor Stadium 16 times from 2003 to 2013 but have done it just once since then, as attendance gradually dropped in recent years before falling off a cliff this season.
Duke is not as good as it was a decade ago, but the Blue Devils are much better than they were a year ago, and it is time for the fans to come back.
There is still time to buy into this team’s success. Senior Day is Sunday afternoon against No. 16 Miami with Duke looking to close out an undefeated regular season at home, and if the Blue Devils win that game, there is a good chance they will get two more home games as a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament.
If you don’t believe me, show up Sunday and see for yourself.
Duke’s players deserve that respect.