Season-high attendance, K-Ville tenters propel Duke women’s basketball past Virginia Tech

Sophomore guard Reigan Richardson in Duke's win against Virginia Tech.
Sophomore guard Reigan Richardson in Duke's win against Virginia Tech.

On Thursday night, 2,207 people crowded into Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch No. 16 Duke record a convincing 66-55 win against No. 12 Virginia Tech. But Cameron Indoor’s largest crowd of the season was not instigated by the matchup’s implications for the ACC regular-season title, or its significance in helping secure Durham as a host site in the NCAA tournament. 

Much of the crowd was there to help themselves get into the Blue Devil men’s basketball game against North Carolina Feb. 4.

“I’m a big basketball fan, including women’s basketball, and I do try to get to as many games as I can, but that isn’t too many,” said sophomore Dav King. “Tenting points are definitely a big factor in getting me out to a game like this, which I think they are for most people. We’re all busy on weeknights.”

Every year, as part of the tenting process to secure one of the 840 spots in Section 17 for the Duke-North Carolina men’s basketball home game, participating groups can earn more points in tenting by attending certain other athletic events. And two of the three by far most-attended women’s basketball home games this year (Clemson and Virginia Tech) were designated as such. Despite this women’s team performing appreciably better than their male counterparts for just the second time in program history (2006-07), attendance for a top-20 women’s matchup was boosted primarily by students hoping to watch an unranked men’s team take on an unranked Tar Heel squad the following week.

“Honestly, I hadn’t been to a women’s game until the day of the tenting test in order to receive the extra points,” said freshman Katalina Guma. “The only other game I’ve been to (the Virginia Tech game) was also for an attendance event.”

There is an irony there, but also an opportunity. For starters, tenting students being encouraged to attend women’s basketball games helps fuel the team.

“Our crowd’s been growing a little bit every game. It’s been really nice to see that growth and that support from the local community,” center Mia Heide said after the win over the Hokies. “Girls’ basketball doesn’t always get the support I think that we would like to have; our men’s team obviously does. But it’s really cool to see our community and our support growing every day, and we’re really grateful for it. And it definitely helps in big games like this.”

It was clear against Virginia Tech that Section 17, despite filling up quickly, was not up to its usual level of intensity in the early going. The crowd’s activity paled in comparison to what the Blue Devils had witnessed in Chapel Hill the week prior. Even as the home team was called for eight more fouls than the Hokies over the first three quarters—a dichotomy in whistles usually being the most reliable way to engage a crowd—the fans still needed time to warm up.

“It’s always good to see more fans there, but there’s always that thought in the back of your head that a lot of this is just being driven by the fact that people are getting better rewards at the men’s basketball game by attending the women’s basketball game,” said King, who traveled to Chapel Hill last week for the women’s Tobacco Road rivalry game. “These games are still comparatively really quiet and unenergetic.”

The fans did warm up, though. As Duke pulled off an 11-2 run across the late-third and early-fourth quarters, the crowd crescendoed along with them, cheering loudly at back-to-back Hokie turnovers down the stretch and staying on their feet for the final 4.5 minutes.

“It was great to have our students come out and support this team and interact with some of them after the game,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said about the crowd and a postgame meet-and-greet between the team and fans. “I don’t think you can watch our team and not like how they play and not get behind them … Our team plays hard, and they play together, and I think they’re representing this school and Duke basketball in an incredible way right now. And so it has been cool to see the momentum building, I think, within Durham and within our Duke community of people kind of wanting to come check us out and see what we’re about.”

Attendance at Duke women’s basketball games has been steadily declining since 2011-12. The turnout for last year’s home game against North Carolina was the lowest on record for the Durham end of the rivalry, despite both teams being ranked at the time. The home-court advantage that the Blue Devils enjoyed in their heyday faded as the program slipped in Joanne P. McCallie’s final years and Lawson’s first season with fans in attendance crumbled down the stretch.

But this season has been different. Duke is tied for first in the ACC and is 8-1 in conference play, its best start since 2013-14. Shayeann Day-Wilson has the mix of wild shot-making and confident celebrations that crowds have loved. The Blue Devils rank eighth in the country in defensive rating, per Her Hoop Stats, with the kind of smothering, in-your-face pressure that has energized the Cameron Crazies for decades. They have just four home games remaining in their regular season, including their final two against No. 20 N.C. State and No. 15 North Carolina, respectively.

“After seeing the women’s team play I am definitely more inclined to attend a game in the future,” said Guma, “especially against our rivals.”

“I definitely plan on [attending the games against the Wolfpack and Tar Heels],” said King. “Whenever it fits into my schedule, I do try to get to women’s games—they’re playing better than the men’s team right now anyway!”


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