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'Big-time game': Electric crowd helps give Duke men's basketball's win against Gonzaga an NCAA tournament feel

Sophomore Mark Williams had 17 points and five blocks against Gonzaga.
Sophomore Mark Williams had 17 points and five blocks against Gonzaga.

LAS VEGAS—An electrified atmosphere is exactly what you’d expect in a clash of two top-5 teams. Make them two of the most passionate fan bases in the nation, and you’d almost guarantee it. Inject the energy of Las Vegas, throw in arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time and a one-on-one matchup of two of the top freshmen in the nation, and it’s inevitable.

But not like this.

Plenty of sports events are loud. This one was earsplitting.

Gonzaga is a small school in Washington, almost due north from Las Vegas, Nevada—1050 miles away by drive, navigating your way through the mountains for hours before reaching your destination. Duke is a small school in North Carolina—2,300 miles away by drive, a 33-hour trip via highway while navigating through not one but two mountain ranges.

Somehow, these two schools brought all their fans with them.

The final attendance number from T-Mobile arena was 20,389, the largest ever crowd for a basketball game in the state of Nevada. It isn’t easy to set records in Vegas, but these two powerhouses managed—and the fans did the rest.

“[It was] just a really big-time game,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “What a great crowd… we thought it might be a showcase game, and it was, but having this type of crowd was amazing.”

Not one spectator was in their seat at tip, and from the moment the ball landed in Jeremy Roach’s hands following the superior leap from Mark Williams, the crowd seemed to be breaking a decibel record every minute.

Cameron Indoor Stadium is largely regarded as the loudest stadium in college basketball, but the Duke fans easily upstaged themselves tonight. In a game decided by one or two plays down the stretch, the Blue Devil faithful pushed the team across the finish line, supplementing measured free-throw conversion in the final two minutes with a rowdiness usually reserved for late rounds in March.

“It’s probably the game of this year so far,” said Krzyzewski. “And we all realize that.”

It started with the first deafening roar, not two minutes into the contest. With 18:08 on the clock, Mark Williams faced up to Chet Holmgren—the most highly touted freshman in America—and sent the ball right back where it came from, almost before it could leave Holmgren’s hands. Suddenly, a basketball arena sounded like a football stadium, and we were off.

And if that didn’t paint a loud enough picture, just imagine the wail coursing through T-Mobile Arena when Paolo Banchero brought the Duke crowd back to life after a Holmgren dunk with an and-one, followed by a lob to Mark Williams, followed by a three near the Gonzaga bench with just under 10 to play in the first half. 

The Bulldogs called a timeout just six seconds later, Banchero flexing all the way to the bench to the delight of the crowd.

“These kids are going to be playing in front of a lot of big time crowds during their lives and their careers,” said Krzyzewski. “We’re fortunate that in our program, we’re able to schedule some games that can produce a high level of attendance.”

Surely, Gonzaga fans were by no means absent. After all, the school is nearly 1300 miles closer. When Banchero went off with cramps, and the Bulldogs went on a run, they made themselves loud and proud, just as they had been on nearly every basket for their squad from the west.

They may have outnumbered Duke fans in attendance, but they didn’t out-yell them. The Blue Devils managed to take the roar back, gaining the lead with 4:31 remaining, no vocal cord going unspent over the next 271 seconds of basketball.

“...it felt like a Final Four game in there, and it’s only November,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few. “That’s why we all come to these schools, to play games like this.”

Duke is often regarded as having one of the best home-court advantages in the country. It’s no secret that the jeering Crazies can throw off other teams, and give the Blue Devils the necessary edge. But over time, they’ve expanded this to neutral sites, developing a traveling audience all the way up to New York City—where Madison Square Garden has earned the nickname “Cameron North”.

It’s about time we crowned a Cameron West.

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