July 2, 2022

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Duke national champion Nate James talks 2001 title run, Final Four matchup, first season as head coach

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EXCLUSIVE: Nate James knows the feeling of winning a college basketball national championship as a player and an assistant coach — and also losing on the biggest stage of his collegiate career.

James, who is now the head coach at Austin Peay, played for Duke from 1996 to 2001 and was on the Blue Devils when they lost to UConn in the national championship in 1999 and when they defeated Arizona in the game in 2001. He was a conditioning coach and later an assistant coach under the legendary Mike Krzyzewski from 2008 to 2021 and was there when the team won it all in 2010 and 2015.

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Casey Sanders, Nate James and Chris Duhon celebrate after defeating Arizona at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 2, 2001.
(Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT)

James recalled in an interview with Fox News Digital his fondest memories of the national title run in 2001 with Shane Battier, Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon and Carlos Boozer, to name a few.

“It’s not just necessarily one particular moment but it’s more so just the overall bond that we had and the closeness of the group with Shane and I being the captains and just kind of figuring out how to get better and just the ups and downs you go through during the season, regardless of how good you are,” he said.

“As a matter of fact, my wife and I were just talking about the loss to this year’s team, the loss to [North] Carolina for [coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game] and I said look, you know, it sucks. I hated that was the last game. I was there. And I said it’s kind of like my senior year. I lost to Maryland and that was my senior night and we just talked about the next time we come back in this gym [Cameron Indoor Stadium] it’s going to be to thank you guys for supporting us and being with us as we’re national champions. That’s what we did my senior year. It was just beautiful. Coming back, addressing the Cameron Crazies in the crowd and raising that banner for them.”

James suggested it’s the perfect moment for Duke to beat North Carolina in their Final Four matchup on Saturday night. North Carolina blew out Duke by 20 points in their last meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium and it’s the first time in tournament history the two teams are squaring off against each other.

“This is storybook,” James told Fox News Digital. “They couldn’t have written this up any better than this turned out to be. So now, our guys just have to play their games and take care of business and don’t let the emotion of it come into play.”

“I think that somewhat occurred the first time they played. All the emotion, everything that kind of went on that led up to the game and before you know it you’re out there comatose. With this time, it can’t be so much about last time. Last time, does not matter. The only thing that matters is you bring your best game this time around and you follow the game plan, you’re playing your butt of on defense and you’re doing everything necessary to win the game. That’s what they have to do more than anything else.”

Blocking out the noise in the days leading up to the Final Four is one of the challenges all student-athletes have to face, let alone starting down a rivalry game as one of the biggest games of the year. 

James admitted it’s a hard thing to do.

“It is going to be hard. I mean as a coach now and someone who’s older it was easy to say, hey man don’t think about last game. Don’t think about it being your rival. Don’t think about the magnitude that us as fans and former players want to throw into the equation, but you really just have to focus on the present,” he said.

“They’re going against an extremely talented team that believes they are capable of winning it all. And everyone in the Final Four is worthy of being there and they just have to show up locked into the game plan. They have to be all-in, play their butts off and just think about the moment and not anything else. I think the game’s big enough as is not to do that so hopefully they’ll try to do that. I’m sure the first couple of minutes they may be a little wired up, a little more hyped up but they’ll settle into the game like they’ve been doing all tournament.”

New challenge

Austin Peay Governors head coach Nate James holds out his hands out questioning a call from officials during a game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Austin Peay Governors, Dec. 18, 2021, at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Austin Peay Governors head coach Nate James holds out his hands out questioning a call from officials during a game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Austin Peay Governors, Dec. 18, 2021, at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

James was the first person to win a national championship at Duke as a player and as a coach. He was named Austin Peay’s head coach in April 2021 – the first head coaching gig of his career.

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The Governors were 12-17 overall and 8-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference in James’ first season.

He talked about the challenges he faced in his first season at the end of the bench. He said coming from Duke he wasn’t used to having to build things from the “ground up”

“What I had to overcome is the expectations and the standards that I have, not that I will lower them, but to be a little more patient to work with them on just the fundamentals and just take it day-by-day,” he said. 

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“Loved it. A lot of stressful nights but that’s part of moving over a chair but ultimately, I just have to follow what Coach K has told me. Take your teachers, take your knowledge, take everything that you’ve kind of experienced and you make it your own. Obviously, there’s only one Coach K but his advice was just to be authentic to yourself and put your own spin on it. But don’t forget your values and the principles and the things that you learn. Teach them how to elevate your standards and that’s what my staff and I have been trying to do every day with them.”

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