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MCI Center Audience Is Old, Faithful

Staid Boosters, Not Manic Students, Make Up Crowd

By Liz Clarke
Washington post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page D11

They are the face-painted, bare-chested, sign-waving, smart-mouthed crazies who set the manic mood for college basketball and help preserve what little remains of that fine line delineating the amateur game from the pros. But where are they -- actual college students -- on this biggest weekend of ACC basketball?

They're a scant commodity at MCI Center, accounting for, at best, 10 percent of the thousands who have flocked to Washington for the 52nd annual ACC tournament.

Maryland freshman Chris Walter waves his sign during Terrapins' loss to Clemson on Thursday. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

It's not for lack of interest, as North Carolina sophomore Matt Brooks will testify. It's simply a longstanding practice in the ACC, as old as the glorious tournament itself, to use the season-ending event as a fundraiser to reward loyal alumni -- even if it means virtually shutting out the students who have cheered on the teams all season.

Roughly 90 percent of tournament tickets are set aside for the schools' most generous boosters, who earn the right to buy the $325, four-day book of tickets by donating tens of thousands to their respective athletic departments over a lifetime. Some portion of the rest -- typically no more than 100 tickets per school -- is sold to the students.

"It definitely brings the excitement down," said Brooks, 19, of the low number of students on hand. "In terms of standing up and screaming your lungs out, a 75-year-old alumnus doesn't do that like students do! That's just the way it is. They could try, and there are some that I know back in Chapel Hill that do. But it's just not the same."

So clad head to toe in Carolina blue -- from powder-blue wig, blue-painted face and blue jersey and shorts -- Brooks poured every fiber of his gyrating being into compensating for the staid crowd during yesterday's tougher-than-expected quarterfinal against Clemson, bobbing up and down like a pogo stick, flailing his arms and pleading for his beloved Tar Heels to pull out the come-from-behind victory.

ACC tournament tickets were especially scarce this year, given the league's expansion from nine to 11 schools and the fact that MCI Center holds about 4,000 fewer seats than Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, last season's host. That meant each school's allotment was cut by about 500, but schools could distribute those tickets however they chose.

"This tournament really from the very beginning had a lot to do with fundraising at the individual institutions," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. "People were willing to give to the scholarship program in order to have the opportunity to buy ACC tournament tickets."

Duke set aside 10 percent of its allotment (roughly 194 tickets) for students. According to Jack Winters, director of the Iron Dukes -- Duke's athletic fundraising arm -- only 47 students signed up to buy them.

"It's not a large number because of spring break and the cost," Winters said.

At Wake Forest, 89 students bought tickets, according to sophomore Andrew D'Epagnier, 20, public relations chairman of the Screamin' Demons student boosters. And they were among the most vocal fans on hand for the Clemson-North Carolina game, cheering wildly for Clemson and shouting down the Tar Heels, whom they regard as standing in the Deacons' way of a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.

"C.P.'s better!" they jeered every time North Carolina's Raymond Felton went to the free throw line, declaring that Wake Forest's Chris Paul, rather than Felton, was the best point guard in the country. "C.P.'s better!"

The day before, Maryland freshman Chris Walter did his part to breathe life into an otherwise passive arena. He wore a tuxedo and sported a Maryland state flag as a cummerbund to complement his hand-lettered sign, which read: "Maryland! Take Me To The Big Dance!"

Walter was by far the loudest among the contingent of Maryland students who had purchased their tournament tickets through a campus lottery, with priority going to those who had accumulated the most "loyalty points" by attending regular season basketball games. And every time Maryland fell farther behind, Walter cranked up his voice.

"Take a shot! Let's go, boys!" he hollered.

And as Maryland whittled away at the deficit, he yelled "RALLY CAPS!" As if on cue, the students around him flipped their baseball caps inside out, bills skyward, and readjusted them for an extra measure of good luck.

"The students are trying, and I think we're doing an all-right job," Walter said. "As long as we're louder than everybody, and our team knows we're here."

One section away, the Maryland boosters whose donations paved their way into MCI Center, took a more passive approach to their team's slide. They talked on cell phones, skimmed the newspaper, chatted with their neighbors and occasionally rolled their eyes in disgust. One man suddenly stood, but it was only to stretch his back while those around him sat, arms folded across their chest, as if waiting to be entertained.

Walter surveyed the dejected boosters to his left.

"It's rare to get them up on their feet, even at home games," he said. "I guess some of 'em can't stand for 40 minutes."

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