- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- In retrospect, it was probably a bad sign when a guy with a bullhorn trotted out in front of the student section at Duke a few minutes before player introductions and told the assembled masses that there were large numbers of students still stuck outside waiting to get in.
So could everyone please turn sideways and take two steps to the right?
As a rule, it seems very little happens on college campuses before noon on Saturdays. Likewise, when an hour remains before tip of a basketball game, arenas are generally quieter than the library during the week before finals.
Putting the two together ought to be a recipe for peace and quiet. But an hour before Saturday's game between No. 1 Maryland and third-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, even before the band broke out the brass and the bass, the atmosphere was anything but sleepy.
Not only did a large contingent of the same blue-clad students who helped make Dick Vitale famous help Duke fill Cameron for a women's game for the seventh time in the program's history, they showed up an hour early, crowding the lower rows of bleachers and lending the arena an energy befitting the biggest game of the season to date in women's basketball.
I had been to Cameron once before for a game, but the crowd for that nonconference laugher against Old Dominion didn't come close to filling the arena.
In other words, I didn't know what I was in for.
Karen and Lindsey, two seniors who wound up directly behind my seat on press row, said they had gotten in line at 9:30 Saturday morning to ensure they would be able to snag spots in the front row. All the better to harass opponents from (or in a pinch, sportswriters). They were diehard fans of the women's team. Karen lives in the same dorm as several of the players and Lindsey had classes with Alison Bales and Emily Waner.
"We've been looking forward to this game all season," Lindsey said, acknowledging Saturday morning's wake-up call took priority over any wild activities on Friday night.
"Since last March," interjected Karen, referencing Duke's overtime loss to Maryland in the championship game.
It may not be the legendary multi-night camping expeditions and/or bacchanalia that are required to land seats for a Duke men's game, but convincing college kids to get up in time to still make breakfast at McDonald's might be as positive a sign for the future of the women's game as anything on record.
It's at least a sign of the kind of interest Duke coach Gail Goestenkors has cultivated in Durham.
"I think it's gotten better," Lindsey said of the team's support among students. "Like this game, I don't think we had any game like this our freshman year. Even with Alana [Beard]."
"I think the first time we had a sold-out crowd was our sophomore year," Karen added.
I was actually lucky. Karen and Lindsey were undeniably boisterous, but they were also friendly, helpful -- Karen offered to hold my folding chair as I attempted to climb to my spot, feeling very much like a carnival basketball heading for a too-small rim. And they only inadvertently smacked me in the back of the head a few times during the course of the game.
At least I think they were inadvertent.
And they knew their basketball, expressing surprise before the start of the second half that Maryland -- which entered the game shooting better than 40 percent from behind the arc -- was having so much trouble hitting outside shots. Some of the crowd may have been there simply for the spectacle -- or the joy of yelling at the UNC fans holding up a sign with the message "We Hate Both of You'' before the game -- but there was no doubt most were into the game.
"It still needs some work, but it's encouraging to see more people coming out," Lindsey concluded.
For their part, the players loved every minute of playing in front of a full house. Goestenkors said after the game that the first sellout in 2003 produced more nerves for the Blue Devils than the visiting Connecticut Huskies, but the raucous environment is now a true sixth man for Duke.
"It keeps you pumped up," Duke's Lindsey Harding said after beating Maryland on Saturday. "I was exhausted at one point and I'm over there trying to call a play, but then I look at them and they're screaming, and it's like, I'm not really tired anymore."
Walking into Cameron for the first time is the basketball equivalent of walking into Fenway Park for the first time. The tiny dimensions are staggering but somehow not disappointing. And when it fills with people, the crush of humanity becomes a sensory experience. You see the crowd, you hear the crowd and you most definitely feel the crowd. In fact, if you turn your head at the wrong moment in a cheer, you might even taste the crowd.
"There's no feeling like it," Lindsey said succinctly.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.