Monday March 31st, 2008

DAVIDSON, N.C. -- How two Kansas fans wound up in the only bar in town on the most important day in Davidson basketball history is less interesting than you might think. Kallie Maddox visited Justin Newell, a childhood friend from Wichita. Newell lives in nearby Concord, N.C., and loves the Brickhouse Tavern. Still, the two Rock-chalkers couldn't help but draw attention Sunday afternoon as what seemed like the entire town gathered at the Brickhouse, which features brick-oven pizzas, dozens of beers on tap and a Breathalyzer on the wall. Local resident Don Sommer spotted the blue caps in a sea of Davidson red as soon as he walked through the door. "I don't want to be superstitious," Sommer told Maddox and Newell, "but I root for Wisconsin, and I stood in that same spot Friday [when the Wildcats thumped the Badgers in the Sweet 16.]"

Less than a mile away, on Davidson's bucolic, dogwood petal-covered campus, a stuffed Bucky Badger rested in the jaws of the Wildcat statue between the track and the student union -- a tribute to the greatest Davidson team since the bunch Lefty Driesell took to the Elite Eight in 1968 and 1969. About two hours before Davidson tipped off against Kansas in the Elite Eight, the campus seemed almost deserted. About a third of the 1,700-person student body took up the school on its offer of a free trip to Detroit to root on the Wildcats. The rest, it seemed, congregated in the union, which does not have a Breathalyzer on the wall.

A sextet of Davidson students joined the townfolk at the Brickhouse. Only one is from North Carolina; the rest hail from urban centers in the north and the Midwest. Hannah Rogers, from the Boston suburb of Hingham, Mass., said that she chose Davidson because she wanted to attend a small liberal arts college. Reminded that there were a number of somewhat prestigious small liberal arts colleges a stone's throw from her hometown, Rogers laughed.

The students love Davidson, they explained, because it challenges them and respects them at the same time. Students schedule their own exams, and they take those tests without proctors present. They don't need them, they said, because they all believe in the honor code. Unfortunately, that rigorous academic focus doesn't always allow students to blow off their scholastic responsibilities to go to a basketball game. Rogers stayed to work on her senior thesis, which had a long title that included the phrase "renewable resources" -- just the type of thing the professors love at small liberal arts colleges. Rogers' friend, Monica Jamouneau, stayed behind because she had a psychology test. But wait, can't students schedule their own tests?

"That's just for exams," Jamouneau explained.

As tip-off neared, Cindy Griffith Ray sat with sons Rusty, Ben and Philip on a set of couches near the end of the bar. Ray grew up in Cornelius, N.C., an even smaller town across the street from Davidson. "See Griffith Street," she said, pointing the main drag that connects Davidson to Interstate 77. "That's named after my grandfather."

Ray, whose grandfather was Davidson's mayor in the 1940s, loved those Driesell teams, but she fell in love with Bob McKillop's crew this season. So did the entire town. Hundreds of houses flew bedsheets from their front porches this weekend to cheer on the Wildcats. Why bedsheets?

A Davidson woman named Joanne Shackelford used to hang sheets from her house to celebrate just about anything. If a local family brought home a new baby or if someone turned 50, Joanne probably hung a sheet to commemorate the event. A few years ago, Joanne was diagnosed with cancer. The Valentine's Day before she passed, hundreds of homes flew sheets in her honor.

"I just drove past her old house," Ray said. "I was just thinking how excited she would be."

Shortly after tip-off, the rowdiest spot in the Brickhouse wasn't anywhere near the bar. Erica Felthaus, a Davidson native and former East Carolina cheerleader, squirmed in her dining-room seat as she screeched, pleaded, celebrated and despaired with each new bounce of the ball. Felthaus worked as a volunteer assistant coach for the Davidson cheerleading squad this season before a job transfer -- she works for the Hershey candy company -- forced her to move across the state to Wilmington.

"DEFENSE!" she yelled. "COME ON! GO GET HIM! COME ON GUYS!" Kansas scored. "Dammit," she muttered.

Across the table, Felthaus' mother, Celia, explained that the feeling is mutual between the town and the Wildcats. Celia, who has taught second and third grade at Davidson Elementary for 14 years, said most of the team came to a school jog-a-thon only days after winning the Southern Conference tournament. As the elementary schoolers circled the track, the Wildcats jogged alongside, encouraging them to stay in shape. The group included star guard Stephen Curry, who, Felthaus said, couldn't be any more down-to-earth.

"You could tell him he won a million dollars," Felthaus said. "He'd be like, 'Great.' DEEE-FENSE!"

Shortly after halftime, the student union on campus was packed. Students, professors and townies watched the game on giant screens placed on each level of the union. A "Free Speech Board" featuring a lively debate on the war in Iraq stood next to a foosball table. Not far away, Cinderella hoped the ball wouldn't end.

"I actually comparison shopped for adult-sized Cinderella costumes on the Internet," said Phillip Compeau, a Davidson senior from Wilkesboro, N.C. So how much did the costume cost? "Forty-five bucks, plus shipping and handling." But when the sky blue dress arrived last week, it didn't hug every straight line on Compeau's 6-foot-4 frame. So Compeau asked his mother, who was coming for a visit anyway, to bring her sewing machine.

Compeau would have been in Detroit, but he plays on Davidson's tennis team. The Wildcats had matches scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Sunday, so he stayed home. He'd played a doubles match before donning his gown and heading to the union. There, Compeau explained that athletes don't bond at Davidson the way they do at the athletics factories. Unlike at the schools the Wildcats faced this weekend, Davidson athletes are treated exactly like non-athletes. "Here, we're all students first," Compeau said. "The professors don't really cut [the basketball players] a break. They don't really cut any of us a break."

Minutes later, the Wildcats needed a break. Everyone in the union tensed as Kansas took a brief five-point lead. They broke that tension with an impromptu, a cappella rendition of Sweet Caroline, which is to the 2008 Davidson Wildcats what Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer was to the 2006 George Mason Patriots. The Wildcats recovered, slashing the lead to two points before getting the ball back with 16.7 seconds remaining.

Before Davidson inbounded the ball, townie Maryann Klein buried her face in her hands. "I'm not going to look," she said. "I can't pray for a basketball game, but I'm praying now."

Klein looked up only after Jason Richards bricked a three-point attempt off the left side of the backboard. The union fell silent. It stayed that way for a few seconds. Then Jan Blodgett, the archivist at the college's library, spoke. "We love you guys anyway," Blodgett said.

Everyone clapped.

After the round of applause, the tennis-playing Cinderella and all the other fans of the small liberal arts college that could headed for the exits. One more round of Sweet Caroline rang in their ears.

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