Tuesday night marked a few emotional firsts for Duke: it was the first time former Blue Devil assistant Jeff Capel coached in Cameron Indoor Stadium since becoming Pittsburgh’s head coach and the first time the Blue Devils played since the deaths of basketball icon Kobe Bryant and Duke alumnus and former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan.
Together, these events resulted in a battle that was far tougher than the Blue Devils may have expected, not only physically, but also emotionally. Each team played with a heavy heart, as the evening began with a 24.8-second moment of silence while the players wore warmup shirts with a purple and yellow No. 8 on one side and No. 24 on the other, both tributes commemorating Bryant's jersey numbers with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though Duke would hang on for its seventh ACC victory, the night's plentiful emotions stood out even more so than the game. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Bryant in the Olympics, and the many players who idolized Bryant were visibly upset at times.
“[Bryant] means a lot. To every kid in [Los Angeles], he’s Superman, he's a hero,” freshman guard and Los Angeles native Cassius Stanley said. "He's everyone's superhero. We've been hurting for the past couple days for sure. A couple weeks before my decision, [I got to] be around him a couple times. We sat down and actually talked for a good amount of time and he talked to me about my decision process. He gave me advice that kind of steered me towards Duke. When I heard the news, it was really devastating.”
The emotions would extend past mourning Bryant, however, as both head coaches would have unrelated angry outbursts.
After the Blue Devils got off to quick 9-2 advantage, the Panthers fought back, taking their own lead just a few minutes later. After a Tre Jones basket, Capel began yelling at an official, picking up a technical foul.
Krzyzewski would not let Capel outdo him in Cameron, having an eruption of his own before heading to the locker room. Just before halftime, the Cameron Crazies began to chant “Jeff Capel sit with us." Krzyzewski became irate and scolded the student section. Later, he acknowledged it was a misunderstanding, but reaffirmed his support of Capel and dislike for chants directed at opposing coaches.
“I love Jeff,” Krzyzewski emphasized. “Jeff’s my son, man. These guys, we’re part of a brotherhood. Playing against him is very difficult.”
Capel would voice support for the Cameron Crazies after the incident postgame, also expressed his excitement to return to Cameron.
“It was great being back,” Capel said. “We came in here last night, we shot a little bit, and it was a little weird walking in here from a different entrance, and just being here not with Duke. It was great seeing so many familiar faces, seeing so many people I care about, and care about me.”
Tuesday's game may not have been as pretty as the Blue Devils hoped or featured a program-defining ending as the Panthers hoped. But the contest still marked an important night for Duke basketball, featuring grief, anger and a welcomed homecoming.
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