On March 7, 2020, thousands of people packed into Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch Duke take on North Carolina in a highly anticipated matchup between the Tobacco Road rivals. As it turns out, that game will live on in history for more than what happened on the court: It was just days before the college basketball season was cancelled and the world flipped upside down.
Sitting on press row for that March 7 contest were us, Derek Saul and Conner McLeod, The Chronicle’s sports editor and sports managing editor at the time, respectively. As the Blue Devils prepare to host the Tar Heels Saturday in a fan-less Cameron, we reflect on the 2020 meeting, a night that feels like it took place in another era.
McLeod: Where were you on the last day before the world as we knew it abruptly came to an end? For Duke students, the final basketball game of the regular season against none other than the Tar Heels marked the last day of unmasked, pandemic-free fun on the hallowed campus of Duke University.
Gameday for most consisted of the usual Krzyzewskiville shenanigans, as tenters and non-tenters alike celebrated Duke basketball, the beating heart of the student body which almost never fails in bringing the campus together. For Derek and I, however, we were mentally preparing for what we knew to be one of, if not the greatest privilege any college sports journalist would ever experience: covering a blockbuster matchup in the biggest rivalry in college basketball. Nobody knew it then, but it would be the last game Duke would play of the year before dropping out of the ACC and NCAA tournaments due to COVID-19. Although the rest of 2020 didn’t go to plan, Derek and I will at least have the memories of that day for the rest of our lives to remind us of how things used to be.
Before sitting at our assigned seats, Derek and I were allowed to stand on the sidelines near press row, somewhat sharing the court with the athletes who would later be putting on a show for the arena. The aura of the event actualized into court vibrations felt in my body as I stood just feet away from the nervous pregame dribbling of Tre Jones and the layup line show-stopping dunks via Cassius Stanley.
Despite the insane academic rigor at Duke, getting to my press row seat remains the hardest task I’ve had in my undergraduate career. Gameday against North Carolina proved to be the hardest attempt yet, due to the well-known practice of packing in as many fans as possible into the student section. Squeezing past the yelling, amped up, antsy and slightly intoxicated sardines while trying my absolute hardest not to drop my computer or have someone spill something on my borrowed blazer is definitely another vivid memory of the day.
Yes, the pregame events left us excited and amped for the day ahead, but nothing compared to actually doing what Derek and I waited to do for about two and a half years: cover and report on Duke’s matchup against North Carolina.
Saul: That March 7 contest was Duke’s last action for almost nine months, so it’s only fitting that the game was memorable in its own right.
Even though North Carolina entered the contest with a 13-17 record, it was still an installment of the Tobacco Road rivalry, so the atmosphere in Cameron Indoor Stadium was electric. The underdog Tar Heels kept it close all evening, until the unlikeliest of heroes emerged for the Blue Devils: rarely used fifth-year senior Justin Robinson, who helped Duke to an 89-76 victory.
Getting his first career start on Senior Night, Robinson turned in the performance of a lifetime. His 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and four blocks were all career-highs. As I wrote at the time:
“Already having played the best game of his college career, Robinson fell to the ground while taking a contested triple with 4:27 remaining in the contest. The shot fell for Robinson’s fourth 3-pointer of the night, sending the crazed Cameron crowd into a blissful frenzy.
“This was everything he could have dreamt of and more.”
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This was supposed to just be Duke’s regular-season finale, with the ACC and NCAA tournaments—the “real season,” as Robinson called it—still to come. But that turned out to be the last game the 2019-20 Blue Devils would ever play. Just five days later, the NCAA tournament was cancelled, and our country spiraled into the depths of the pandemic.
No matter what, this would have been a game I would remember for the rest of my life. Sitting centercourt in press row for the home game against North Carolina is seen as the biggest benefit of serving as sports editor or sports managing editor of The Chronicle, and the game itself was exciting.
But, as is the case for so many people, I’ll remember this game for being many lasts. It’s the last time I’ll attend a game in Cameron as a Duke student, the last time I’ll sit in Cameron’s press row and, most importantly, the last time I’ll feel like “normal” as a Duke student.
This year, Conner and I will cover the North Carolina game remotely. There will be no Cameron Crazies in attendance, nobody on press row and none of the raucous environment the game is famous for.
But, hey, at least the last game many of us got to see in Cameron was one we’ll never forget.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.