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Duke wins in China - no brawls necessary

Ed Flanagan/NBC News

Chinese players line up for the playing of the American national anthem before a game against Duke University on August 22nd, 2011.

BEIJING – The memory of last week's Georgetown/Bayi brawl was definitely back of mind for fans and the large media contingent attending Monday night’s final game between Duke University and China’s Olympic basketball team.

But no punches were thrown at this game. Instead it ended with applause and cheers of appreciative fans who were awed by the high-wire dunks and athleticism of the Blue Devils and by the tenacity of a Chinese side that battled back from a 28-6 deficit in the first quarter to pull within three points early in the third quarter.

Duke’s 93-78 victory was surely what tour organizers had been hoping for when they green-lighted this trip. In a nod to the events of last week, security was beefed up throughout the arena, with tighter security protocols – including bottles and lighters being confiscated outside the arena while concession stands poured cans of beer and soft drinks into paper cups for customers.

Both steps were taken to prevent the hurling of bottles and lighters onto the court or at players, which one sports blogger here in Beijing called “par for course” at China Basketball Association (CBA) games.  

Ed Flanagan/NBC News

It was a disappointing result for China's Olympic team, which came away from the Duke series 0-3. Still, local fans seemed generally supportive of the team.

Stern-looking ushers and security guards in white short-sleeved shirts and black pants replaced the standard “mall-cop” security at games. Jon Pastuszek, who writes about Chinese basketball in his NiuBBall blog, described the usual security detail as “boys lacking in training and a fundamental understanding of what their job as security is supposed to be.”  While the security was noticeably more confident than what appeared present at the Georgetown brawl, they certainly did not cast a pall on the event and in fact seemed to blend into the crowd.

Despite the enhanced precautions, however, Pastuszek – who frequently attends CBA games – believes that the security at the Duke game was not typical of games in China. “I would say the level of security at the Georgetown/Bayi games was more consistent with CBA security than last night’s Duke game,” said Pastuszek.

Pastuszek said that he was surprised soda and beer was sold at the game – because they usually don’t allow sales from concession stands at official CBA games. He added that the Mastercard arena, where the game was played, is not managed by the same organization as most professional Chinese games, so they were allowed to sell drinks.

The crowd's energy throughout the game was excited and cheery, a mood hammered home by the eclectic soundtrack constantly piped in – apparently a CBA hallmark – over the game. It ranged from peppy Top 40 hits to rockabilly to techno versions of “If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands....”

Questionable officiating?
It was probably for the best that the music drowned out the noise of the game, as it likely sheltered the crowd from the periodic outbursts of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski who at times appeared unhappy with the officiating.

His frustration was particularly noticeable during a series of events during the final minute of the first half. Coming out of a timeout with 59 seconds left in the half, Duke’s players took to the court while China’s remained in a huddle long after the horn to restart play had blown.

With a lull in the music, Coach K could be seen animatedly gesturing at the referees while yelling, “Come on! Come on! That’s not right!”

Later, following a Duke offensive turnover from a questionable non-call that led to a critical basket from China to bring the score to 40-49 with less than 30 seconds in the first half, timeout was called, and Coach K had to be physically pulled away by an assistant as he yelled at a ref. 

By halftime, the free-throw disparity between the two teams was striking: Duke 6-8, China 18-27. As both teams left the court, Coach K could be seen having a hard talk with the referees before storming off to the locker room, muttering under his breath and wearing a disgusted face.

“When the score gets a little out of control, and there are three Chinese refs in the game, they are going to want to keep the game closer,” said Pastuszek, who was at Monday night's game. Indeed, there were numerous moments in the second and third quarter when it seemed timely calls and hard luck fouls seemed to go against Duke.  To the credit of the players from both teams, both expressed their frustration at the officiating but never took it beyond an exasperated look or a clap of the hands.

Ed Flanagan/NBC News

At a press conference after Duke's 93-78 victory over China's Olympic team, Coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke highly of the hospitality provided by their Chinese hosts and the nation's bright basketball future. (August 22nd, 2011)

A local sports journalist at the game said that the referees for that night were registered with an international referees' organization and thus spoke English.  This was certainly a far cry from the past two games Duke played as well as the Georgetown/Bayi match, where the refs allegedly did not speak English and ignored the frustrated castigations of the two university coaches.

As one Duke fan sarcastically noted on a live chat during the game, “Duke fouling much less in this game. Obviously K finally got some English speaking referees.”

Through the three games Duke played in China, the Blue Devils were called for 85 fouls to the 55 called against the Chinese sides.  Despite the questionable disparity in calls, Coach K was gracious in a joint post-game press conference with the Chinese coach, saying he felt that the Chinese side had been hospitable throughout their entire stay here and speaking bullishly of China’s strong basketball future.