At The Heights, Blue Devils breathe in atmosphere
BC fans try to distract Duke's Shelden Williams as he shoots a free throw. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
Capital C, College, Capital B, Basketball came to Boston last night.
The local stars were out at Conte Forum, from Bill Belichick to Brad Faxon, from Bob Kraft to Larry Lucchino, from J.P. Ricciardi to, of course, Doug Flutie, for what would a major Boston College event be without Doug Flutie? They had come out on this February night because collegiate royalty had come to Boston and it was necessary to pay respect.
Duke was here. That's Duke, as in three national championships and 14 Final Four appearances, the last 10 of which have come in the Mike Krzyzewski regime, which began in 1980 and which will continue for many years to come, as will the Final Four appearances and the occasional national championship.
Duke has been to Boston many times. Duke has played at Harvard, at Boston University, and at Northeastern. Duke was in Conte Forum four years ago, in fact. But Duke had never before come here to play a league game, an Atlantic Coast Conference game, and that seemed to make all the difference. That, plus the fact that BC is pretty good and people were, you know, hoping.
It was a classic college scene. Most of the crowd (even some of the celebs) were wearing ''Solid Gold" T-shirts (Coach Bill stuck with his suit, by the way) and it must have looked good on TV, and you probably know Dickie V himself was here. There was a true pregame buzz and there was a lot of noise in the house (for a change) and BC gave it a pretty good go, but, when it was all over, Duke had prevailed by an 83-81 score because they are Duke and there was absolutely nothing going on last night that Duke hasn't seen before.
These kids come to Duke for games like these. They come to Duke to play in front of the preening Cameron Crazies, sure, but they also come to Duke because they relish the road games even more. The road games put the hair on your chest. The road games make you a Man. The road games are, frankly, even more fun than the home games.
''It's always fun to play in an atmosphere like this," said Duke senior Shelden Williams, who had 21 points and seven blocks, the last of which, a rejection of the driving Tyrese Rice, locked up the game with seven seconds left and BC trailing, 81-78. ''The crowd gives you a lot of energy. Then at the end of the game you get to silence the crowd. There is no better feeling than silencing the crowd as you are walking off the court."
There could have been a Duke car crash. The second-ranked Blue Devils led by 18 points (61-43) with 12:47 left and no one in the house would have been surprised had they gone on to win by 25 or 30 because BC had packed it in when faced with a similar circumstance playing at home against North Carolina State. But this time BC reacted angrily, digging in on defense and seizing the momentum behind 3-pointers by the likes of Jared Dudley (28 points) and Louis Hinnant (12) to get themselves, and the crowd, back in the game. Before long the deficit was down to 10 (53-43), then 6 (63-57), and, following a stumble or two, 3 (72-69, with 2:37 left).
It was all serious and legitimate stuff and suddenly it was exam time for Duke, especially for its young players. You could almost bet that Coach K actually liked this, because during the course of a long season there are times you need to find out what certain people are made of, and this was an opportunity to see what freshman forward Josh McRoberts could do in a time of Blue Devil crisis.
Coach K wasn't worried much about J.J. Redick and Mr. Williams, his senior rocks, first-team All-Americans, and future NBA mainstays. But this is a peculiar Duke team, one with strong senior leadership and no, well, middle-aged players of consequence. Backing up Redick, Williams, Sean Dockery, and Lee Melchionni are a sophomore just off the injury list (DeMarcus Nelson), a freshman guard, Greg Paulus, and McRoberts, a smooth package of 6-foot-11-inch skill from Carmel, Ind.
McRoberts had been something of a BC nuisance all evening, but his big moment came with 38.9 seconds left and Duke leading, 77-74. Paulus went to the line and missed both. But McRoberts, not for the first time, outfought three BC players to grab the rebound and draw a foul. He swished both of them, and that was big. There was more drama in store, but when it was all over the nearest and dearest to Coach K's heart was the play submitted by his big freshman, who must play big if Duke is to make a run at the national championship this year.
''The huge play, of course," said Krzyzewski, ''was the offensive rebound by McRoberts and the two free throws. That was a defining moment for him, because he's going to be a good player. But he's only 50 percent at the line, and that was big for him to make those shots."
Call it his initiation rite, and now Duke can move on, knowing that one question has been answered. McRoberts can join proven winners such as Redick, Williams, Dockery, and Melchionni. He's now an official Dookie.
''Our kids know how to win," said Coach K. ''Whether they do or not, they always believe they're going to win. Sometimes we don't. Other times we do. I'd rather have that attitude than not."
For BC, this could have been a big night. A win last evening and maybe people around here would focus on the Eagles for at least a few weeks.
But there were too many sloppy turnovers and assorted lost opportunities, and the W went to Duke, as it usually does. When the season is over, this game will be a footnote for Duke. They will have played in more packed houses, bringing Capital C, College, Capital B, Basketball to more locales and breaking more hearts, because that's who they are and that's what they do.
But we'll be thinking about last night because we aren't going to have anymore like it.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.