Tuesday April 6th, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- As they watched One Shining Moment play on the Lucas Oil Stadium video screen, several of Duke's victorious coaches and players rested hands on one another's shoulders. Brian Zoubek kept both hands squarely around the national championship trophy -- "and there was no way I was letting go of that thing," said the senior center.

He'd certainly earned it.

Nearly everyone who watched Duke's thrilling 61-59 win over Butler in Monday night's title game will forever remember Gordon Hayward's oh-so-close half-court heave as the lasting image. What they might forget, as the days and years go by, is the sequence immediately before it that forced the Bulldogs into such a last-ditch situation -- the one that personified Duke's championship pursuit.

With the Blue Devils clinging to a one-point lead, Butler inbounded the ball from beneath its basket with 13.6 seconds left and got it to Hayward for what seemed at first an open jumper from the right baseline. But Duke's 7-foot-1 center came out to meet him, forcing the Bulldogs star to put extra arc on his shot. When it missed, the bearded giant was there again to grab the rebound, and he was fouled with 3.6 seconds left.

The game wasn't officially over until Zoubek made his first foul shot, intentionally missed the second, and, of course, until Hayward's last heave bounced off the front rim. But that wasn't the moment his coach was so quick to bring up when addressing reporters afterward.

"Zoubs, on his out-of-bounds defense, adjusts, alters the shot, then got the rebound," marveled Mike Krzyzewski. "It was so fitting for Brian to do that, because he really elevated our team over these last six, seven weeks, to where we could have a chance to play and win a national championship."

While Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith were the unquestioned stars of Duke's 2009-10 national championship team, Zoubek was its improbable unsung hero. Plagued by injuries and buried on the bench for much of his first three seasons, a backup for the first 24 games of the Blue Devils' season, Zoubek's Feb. 13 promotion to the starting lineup and ensuing rebounding prowess marked the turning point in the Blue Devils' season.

His name didn't appear on the NCAA's All-Tournament Team here, despite grabbing 10 rebounds in both of the Blue Devils' Final Four wins and averaging 11.2 boards in the their last five tourney wins; but he wasn't lacking for admirers inside his team's locker room.

"Brian was amazing all season," raved Smith. "He's been our X-factor, rebounding, making defensive plays. He's a [7-1 guy] making game-winning plays for us on the perimeter."

"He doesn't get an extra point in the stat sheet for altering [Hayward's shot], but it's a game-winning play," said fellow senior forward Lance Thomas. "I'm so happy for Brian, after what he's been through, to be a deciding factor for us in winning the national championship."

Thomas, Zoubek and Scheyer were freshmen on Duke's 2006-07 team that uncharacteristically lost in the first round to Virginia Commonwealth. Throughout the tournament, they'd mentioned that moment as a motivating factor.

For Zoubek, there were so many more.

There was four years of assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski riding him in practice, imploring him to become more consistent, more aggressive. There was the broken foot suffered in a pickup game the summer before his sophomore season and the ensuing surgery, followed by re-breaking his same foot the following January. There were the long stretches of games in his first three seasons where he barely contributed.

But when his opportunity finally came Feb. 13 against Maryland, Zoubek's career-high 17 rebounds began a late-season surge that culminated up on that stage, trophy in hand.

"I'm so happy to be able to be a part of a national championship as a team," said the New Jersey native. "But to be able for me personally to be able to prove to people I can play, to be able to say I started for a national champion -- that's a great feeling."

The first half Monday night felt somewhat like those earlier, frustrating days. Butler, despite lacking Duke's size, had crushed the Blue Devils on the glass, most notably holding a 12-3 advantage in offensive rebounds. Duke led 33-32, thanks in large part to shooting 50 percent from the field.

In the second half, however, Zoubek and his teammates asserted themselves in the paint. They outrebounded the Bulldogs 20-11 in the second half, including 8-2 on the offensive end. Zoubek, despite picking up his fourth foul with 11:21 remaining, hauled in four.

"In the second half, we just played better defense and rebounded better," said Krzyzewski. "We brought our defense back a little bit more to bring our guys closer to the bucket ... and also made our rebounders closer."

Krzyzewski's most controversial -- and, it turns out, disputed -- tactical decision was for Zoubek to intentionally miss his second free-throw with 3.6 seconds left, forgoing a potential three-point lead. The intention, Zoubek said, was to create a long rebound that would chew up clock, which it did. By the time he gained control, Hayward had less than two seconds to turn and cut back down court.

There was confusion on the sideline prior to the free throw, and Zoubek said he heard voices telling him both to make it and miss it. He went with his original instructions. Had Hayward hit that shot, however ...

"I'm just glad we're not sitting here talking about how I lost the game," he joked.

Instead, he'll get to spend the rest of his life talking about the night he helped win a national championship -- and the long, turbulent four years that preceded it.

"It's been an absolute progression," said Zoubek. "I don't think our seniors could have predicted anywhere near this kind of success through our career, just based on how our freshman year went. It just proves that if you keep with it, keep your head down, keep working at it, good things will come."

Like that last, fateful rebound that came caroming into his hands.

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