Energized by a rare sellout at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke's women routed Maryland to take over the No. 1 ranking
DUKE'S 81--62 trouncing of top-ranked and previously undefeated Maryland last Saturday had a lot of gratifying elements for the Blue Devils: They avenged their 78--75 overtime loss to the Terrapins in last April's NCAA title game; they showed the nation they haven't missed a beat despite losing three seniors, including All-America Monique Currie, from last year's squad; and they got to play in a sold-out Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the crowd included 750 blue-clad Cameron Crazies who cheered, chanted and shook the floor with their fired-up antics. "It's amazing what our student section does for us," said senior point guard Lindsey Harding, who scored a career-high 28 points. "They are so loud and they keep us so energized. I would love to have that kind of support every game."
Despite a near decade of sustained success, including four Final Four appearances since 1999, the Duke women don't often enjoy what the men's team takes for granted: a packed house and enthusiastic student support. Even though coach Gail Goestenkors has a .754 conference winning percentage—the best in the history of the ACC, men or women—in her 15 seasons in Durham, the Blue Devil women didn't sell out a game in 9,314-seat Cameron until 2003, and have played in front of only six sellouts there since.
Duke, North Carolina and Maryland, the top three teams in the country, respectively, do routinely sell out their games with each other, but getting big crowds to show up for other ACC games is a challenge. One problem is the long shadow cast by the conference's men's teams. " ACC basketball is a very strong brand, and that is both good news and bad news for the women," says ACC associate commissioner Bernadette McGlade. "Fans have a lot of games to choose from."
Another problem is that conference competition isn't as strong from top to bottom as it is on the men's side. "Every men's ACC game is a battle," says Duke senior Kyle White, who attends every Blue Devils men's game and most of the women's. "It's not really a battle for the Duke women except when they play UNC and Maryland."
Even so, there are signs of progress. While women's college basketball attendance has fallen nationwide from its peak in 2003, the ACC's has increased, moving the conference from sixth in the country to fifth, behind the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Big East. Since winning the title, Maryland has more than tripled its season ticket sales, to 7,000, surging from 21st in the country in attendance to seventh, with 7,636 fans a game.
North Carolina, meanwhile, has come up with an innovative program to help attendance. Students who show up at events like women's basketball or field hockey get points toward priority seating at the men's basketball games.
However students get motivated to attend women's games, players would love to see them show up more often. "Coach K always says the student section is the sixth man for his team," said Duke center Alison Bales after the Maryland win. "Today it was nice to get a taste of what that's like."
ONLY AT SI.COM Check out Tracy Schultz's women's Power Rankings every week.