A one-derful weekend
From New England to North Carolina, ESPN.com spent a weekend following Boston College, UConn and Duke.
DURHAM, N.C. -- "Welcome to the show."
That was the greeting from the attendant after I pulled into the parking lot just behind Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
It was still almost three hours before tipoff of the North Carolina vs. Duke women's basketball game, but a palpable buzz had enveloped the Gothic-style buildings on the Blue Devils' west campus.
And why not?
The 7 p.m. ET nationally televised game not only was the revival of this heated -- and sometimes hated -- rivalry between these two schools located just 10.7 miles apart but also was the second 1 vs. 2 women's game being played here in six days.
If good things happen in threes, then this game served as the topper to a college sports trifecta road trip weekend.
In addition to sitting next to (it was more like being consumed by) the Cameron Crazies for two-plus hours, I spent two-plus days watching three No. 1 teams in three sports try to defend their best-in-nation status.
It turned out to be quite a show indeed.
The opening act in the No. 1 parade was a trip to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to watch the top-ranked Boston College men's hockey team face off with neighboring rival Boston University.
Talk about hated rivals, these two schools are just 3.3 miles apart on Commonwealth Avenue. It's a quick trip on the MBTA's B Line from BU's state-of-the-art Agganis Arena to the St. Ignatius Gate on the campus of BC. From there, a brisk five-minute walk puts you at the steps of Conte Forum, home to BC's hockey and basketball teams.
BU and BC first met in hockey back on Feb. 6, 1918 -- a 3-1 BC win -- and the Terriers led the all-time series 115-99-15 entering this game. The Friday night televised meeting also put the nation's two longest unbeaten streaks (BC, 10; BU, 5) on the line, and it could decide the season series, as each team won on its home ice in December.
A few hours before the puck dropped, special copies of The Heights student newspaper were placed on seats behind each goal so the BC students could hold them up to show the "B Who?" printed across the front and back covers when the Terriers were introduced.
One of the great things about hockey is that it's a sport not completely dominated by the size of the players. Witness the opening faceoff.
At the center circle for BC was Brian Boyle. The first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings is listed at 6 foot 7, 240 pounds. At nearly seven feet on skates, the junior center is a menacing combination of size and power with a dash of reckless abandon. In other words, keep your head up when he's on the ice if you're wearing the opposing hockey sweater.
Across from Boyle was BU captain Brad Zancanaro. By contrast, the senior is listed at 5-5, 170, which makes him one of the smallest players in college hockey.
Sure enough, Zancanaro won the opening draw. And it wasn't the only time he bested Boyle on this night.
|“||Overall, it was a great game for us to get the W, a great game for us to win the season series, and a great game for us to get two more points and keep climbing up. More importantly, it's BC and it's always nice to beat them. ”|
|— Boston University coach Jack Parker|
BC, riding a 9-0-1 win streak that dated back to a 6-2 loss at BU on Dec. 3, jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead. In addition to the win streak, goalie Cory Schneider was riding a consecutive scoreless minutes streak that had him perilously close to the record of 254:23 set by former BC goalie Scott Clemmensen in January 1998.
In the first sign that this ultimately wouldn't be the Eagles' night, a bad angle shot by BU defenseman Kevin Schaeffer found its way across the goal line after Schneider made the initial save with his stick before he kicked it in himself as he tried to control the puck.
Schneider's streak was stopped at 242:19, just 12:04 shy of the NCAA regular-season record.
"We talked about the fact that he's been on a streak since we gave him a hard time at Agganis," BU coach Jack Parker said. "But I didn't want to tell them the statistics. He's been playing unbelievable. If we discussed that too much, we wouldn't have come up Comm. Ave. for the game."
Schneider added: "It's something I hadn't experienced in a while, pulling a puck out of my net. It's never a good feeling, but it was almost a relief to have that out of your mind and focus on the game. I don't think it got in my head that I'm beatable now."
BU thought otherwise.
The Terriers ripped off three more unanswered goals for a 4-2 lead early in the third period. The last goal was scored -- with Boyle in the penalty box for holding -- on a pretty tic-tac-toe pass that ended up on Zancanaro's stick before he deposited it behind Schneider.
Before the game ended, Zancanaro and Boyle met one final time in the faceoff circle. With 15.4 seconds left, the David and Goliath of this game squared off with BC in the BU zone, Schneider pulled for an extra skater, and the Eagles trying to tie the score and send the game into overtime.
No such luck. It wasn't a clean faceoff win for Zancanaro, but the Terriers gained control of the puck and BC didn't get another shot off. For his game-winning goal, along with an assist on BU's first goal, Zancanaro ended up being the game's first star in the Terriers' 4-3 win before a sellout crowd of 7,884.
BU and BC could meet again Feb. 13 in the annual Beanpot Tournament, not to mention the Hockey East Tournament, but for now, the Terriers have a 2-1 season-series lead -- something that was more important than beating No. 1.
"Overall, it was a great game for us to get the W, a great game for us to win the season series, and a great game for us to get two more points and keep climbing up," Parker said. "More importantly, it's BC and it's always nice to beat them.
"One thing that is amazing is that this little streak is the longest winning streak in the nation now. Parity has arrived in college hockey."
So, too, will a different No. 1 team when the new polls are released.
It's a short trip down I-95 from Boston before you hit Rhode Island. Shortly after you cross the state line, the capitol building of the nation's smallest state emerges on the horizon. Just south of the dome is downtown Providence, and hidden among the redevelopment is the low-slung roofline of the Dunkin' Donuts Center -- a building that sits hard by the interstate and clearly has escaped a renovation phase that has revitalized the rest of downtown.
Such is life in the Big East, where seven of the 16 teams call shared public venues home.
As No. 1 Connecticut and underdog Providence College -- the smallest Division I school in the "big six" conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC) with an enrollment of 3,770 -- went through the motions of warm-ups, some young kids were able to coax autographs out of PC senior guard Donnie McGrath.
With the color guard on the floor and the national anthem about to be sung, a PC fan yelled out over the hushed arena, "Steal me a laptop, Williams." That got a laugh from some in the crowd, but UConn coach Jim Calhoun couldn't do anything but shake his head.
The reference is to Huskies point guard Marcus Williams, who was forced to sit out the first semester for his role in the attempted sale of stolen laptops last summer that also involved still-suspended teammate A.J. Price.
There was also a sign in the Friars student section that greeted Williams with "UConn-vict."
"I think sometimes on the road is more difficult," Calhoun said after the game. "You could ask [Marcus], and he'd say, 'nothing bothers me.' I don't believe it. I think he's a human being and a real good kid who made a stupid mistake.
"I think he's a good kid and he made a stupid mistake and paid the price for that stupid mistake."
Whether or not it bothers him, Williams was a nonfactor in this game other than to be on the distribution end of a couple of spectacular alley-oop passes to forward Rudy Gay. The first one came right off the opening tip when Gay caught the ball with his elbows above the rim before finishing things off with a stanchion-shaking dunk.
The good news for UConn fans was that the Huskies didn't need Williams on this day, in part because Calhoun's lineup is loaded with several other future professionals, as well.
The Friars hung around for three-quarters of the game before the too-talented Huskies finished them off with solid defense and a good day at the free-throw line (22-29).
UConn led 65-55 with 3:28 left when more than a few Friars fans in the crowd of 12,993 -- the first sellout of the season -- headed for the exits.
The final score was 76-62, but somehow it never felt that close.
"They gave us fits, and I say that in the context that I think we played well," Calhoun said. "I don't think we shot well, but I think we played well. And yet it took 30 minutes, 35 minutes to shake them. The three guys that I think played really well for us happen to be seniors. And that makes a difference in college basketball.
"Hilton Armstrong was the best the player on the court. I think he changed everything in the middle. I thought he had big baskets. He was immense from the foul line. It says he had three blocked shots, but I think most of us would agree he had four blocked shots."
The block-that-wasn't ended up being called a foul after Armstrong cleanly rejected a dunk attempt by PC center Randall Hanke.
Armstrong ended the day with 16 points and 12 rebounds as well as the three official blocks.
"When you play a team like Connecticut, you have to stick to your game plan but a lot of things have to go right," PC coach Tim Welsh said. "I told our guys, if you fight and you battle and you play together, we'd have a chance. I think we did all that, but we came up short.
"We've played four top-10 teams, and it's not even February yet. But playing Connecticut is different than playing other top-10 teams. They should be head and shoulders the No. 1 team in the country. They stand alone as a team."
With the loss, PC dropped to 1-10 all time against No. 1 teams. The only win (82-81 in double OT) was posted in this same building against Michigan back on Dec. 29, 1976.
Up next for the Huskies (18-1, 6-1 Big East) is a tough stretch that includes Pittsburgh (Tuesday), at Indiana (Saturday) and Syracuse (Feb. 8). So, too, is life in the Big East when nearly one-quarter of the Top 25 is from the conference.
The last order of business on the day was to satisfy the dozens of autograph seekers who had set themselves up as a roadblock between the Dunk's stage door and the UConn team bus. Armstrong and Josh Boone, who both towered over their adoring fans, obliged, so the return trip to Connecticut waited a few extra minutes.
"I don't feel any more pressure, but we know teams are going to try and come at us harder because we're No. 1 and they want to prove they can beat the No. 1 team," Armstrong said. "But I like that. It means they are going to play harder and that's going to make us play harder and it's going to make us better."
Even often dour Calhoun -- who spent much of the afternoon sharing his viewpoint with the officiating crew of Jim Burr, Ted Hillary and Pat Driscoll -- had trouble not finding the positives in his team's progress to this point.
"I'm going home feeling good because I think we're getting a little better," Calhoun said. "And I think we'll get a lot better."
That's a scary thought for anyone who isn't a card-carrying member of HuskyNation.
The final leg of the No. 1 trifecta landed Sunday in the rolling hills of central North Carolina.
Low-hanging clouds looked as though they wanted to rain on the collection of tents and students situated on what was once a small patch of grass in front of Card Gymnasium -- the precursor to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The scene looked part protest, part refugee camp, but it was neither.
Welcome to Krzyzewskiville.
The threatening weather doesn't stop a line -- a long line -- of Duke students who have gathered on the sidewalk between the Card and K'ville.
They've been here since noon. Last Monday, when No. 1 Tennessee was in town, the Cameron Crazies lined up at 8 a.m., a full 11 hours before tipoff, for a women's basketball game.
Some were doing homework on laptops; some were playing board games; and some were waiting for the line to start moving.
Jesse Longoria, complete with his royal blue Duke Line Monitor jacket, had the task of checking student IDs before he let the blue wigs and face-paint crowd make its way into Cameron when the doors opened at 5:30 p.m.
"We're trying to ensure order is maintained for entry into the basketball games," the Duke Student Government president said. "The goal is to get as many students as we can squeeze into the section."
The ritual can include telling students to stand sideways if needed to get more than the allotted 700 for women's games and 1,200 for men's games into the historic building.
Chants of "Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell!" rang out from the Dukies as the doors opened and the rush to get into the first 10 rows of bleachers opposite the team benches and in front of the TV cameras was on.
Just after the national anthem, the entire Carolina team circled and jumped on the "D" painted at center court as all but a few hundred in the sellout crowd of 9,314 chanted "Our House."
From my spot in what turned out to be the front row of the Crazies, you can actually see and feel your surroundings move when the place is in full frenzy mode.
The Crazies looked as though they were in for another easy win when the Blue Devils jumped out to a 16-point lead in the first half. On Jan. 23 against Tennessee, the then No. 1 Lady Vols melted in this environment and were sent back to Knoxville with a 75-53 loss.
But UNC, which beat Duke all three times last season, played an inspired second half and turned a 12-point deficit with 10 minutes to play into a 74-70 win.
"I love playing over here," UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "This is a great environment. This is what every coach and every player dreams of, to play in a situation like this."
The Heels were led by 6-1 sophomore forward Erlana Larkins (23 points, four steals) and 5-6 junior point guard Ivory Latta (17 points, six assists).
When UNC was struggling in the first half, the Crazies chanted "Latta Nothing." But the Heels captain clearly lived up to the "Latta-tude" signs held up by the fans behind the Carolina bench.
Latta, who models her playing style after Allen Iverson, told ESPN's Jimmy Dykes during a postgame interview on the floor, "I think I played better than Allen Iverson tonight."
The victory left North Carolina (20-0, 7-0 ACC) as the only undefeated Division I basketball team -- men or women -- in the country.
"They are the most athletic team in the country, and it's difficult to prepare for that," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "This was a different level than we've had to play at. The athleticism, the trap, the switches, the physical nature of the game -- this was by far our most physical game, and you can't just turn that on in one game.
"You have to prepare for that every single day in practice. I know we will be better because of this game."
The rematch in Chapel Hill is set for Feb. 25, which could be a repeat of 1 vs. 2 in the final regular-season game for both teams. The UConn men host Villanova the next day in Storrs. I wonder where hockey's No. 1 is playing Friday, Feb. 24?
When the new polls were released this week, only Connecticut maintained its No. 1 standing. The Duke women's team dropped to No. 2, behind new No. 1 North Carolina, and Boston College found itself ranked No. 3 in both hockey polls.
Where they will be ranked in six weeks when the NCAA Tournament begins is another question, but for one weekend in late January, the three No. 1s provided a window into the similarities and differences of playing at the highest level of their respective sports.
Three road wins. Two upsets. One great show.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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