By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; D01
HOUSTON -- The moment the final buzzer sounded Sunday, Mike Krzyzewski flung both arms in the air, turned toward his assistants and embraced them in a giant bear hug. It was a reaction befitting a head coach headed to his first Final Four, not his 11th.
But it has been a while. Mid-majors have crashed Final Fours, Baylor has rebuilt a program from the depths of scandal and -- no need to remind those in Durham, N.C. -- North Carolina has won two national titles since Krzyzewski's Duke team last played in a Final Four in 2004.
And in an NCAA tournament that has seen several smaller schools steal the limelight, Duke's 78-71 victory over Baylor in the South Region final restored some order to the college basketball world and satisfied a six-year itch of a legendary coach and passionate fan base.
"They got me to a Final Four finally," Krzyzewski said, jokingly. "It's not about the moments I have been in, it's the moments that your players put you in right now. This team will really be brothers forever. It's as close a team as I have had."
Falling short of the Final Four for five consecutive seasons is considered a drought at only a handful of blue-blooded programs, but Duke is one of them. And criticism of a program that appeared to have plateaued only intensified during a season in which Duke was viewed as a very good team but not a national title favorite.
This weekend, Krzyzewski even turned prickly during a news conference in which he criticized a reporter for using the word "meltdown" to describe the tournament struggles since 2004. Duke's seniors -- Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas -- wanted to advance to their first Final Four for themselves but also for their coach.
"I don't think it's just another Final Four for him," Zoubek said. "He has been right there with the senior class. He has had to deal with all the criticism, the hatred that comes with struggling."
In the Duke locker room after the game, Krzyzewski told his players that they are one of his favorite teams, and that they need to cherish the moment and enjoy the emotions before focusing on West Virginia, Duke's opponent in Saturday's national semifinal.
But the Blue Devils (33-5) didn't have an easy path to Indianapolis. They were the top seed in the region but had to play in a virtual road game because Reliant Stadium was just three hours from Baylor's campus. And they needed Upper Marlboro native Nolan Smith to play the game of his life -- scoring a career-high 29 points and winning the region's most outstanding player honors -- to compensate for the struggles of Kyle Singler, who missed all 10 of his field goal attempts and finished with five points.
In the end, the game was decided by what had been Duke's calling cards all season: defense and rebounding. After Baylor managed to hang with Duke on the boards in the first half, the Blue Devils dominated the rebounding battle in the second half, giving themselves ample opportunities at second-chance points with offensive rebounds.
One critical sequence occurred with 3 minutes 36 seconds remaining in the game. After Smith made his first free throw, Baylor Coach Scott Drew hollered to his players, "Box out!" The second free throw attempt missed, but Duke's Thomas batted the ball back out and into the hands of the hottest scorer on the court, Smith, who buried a three-pointer to give Duke a three-point lead. Drew, in a rare show of frustration, kicked the ground.
Two minutes later, Thomas rebounded an errant Singler shot, converted a dunk, drew a foul and swished the free throw. The lead was eight, the Final Four berth was all but secured.
"With Lance, he had a couple plays where he kept the ball alive, which he doesn't necessarily get credit for," Scheyer said. "Then the tip and dunk was just a huge play. Really a huge play. If not the biggest, one of the biggest of the game."
Duke got an early sense of the hostile environment when most of the crowd of 47,492 greeted the Blue Devils with boos during pregame introductions. Zoubek said players come to Duke and expect to win because of the tradition. But his senior class has had to earn every victory, every accolade. And now, "You don't have to say anything," he said. "We don't have to beat our chests. All you have to do is point to the banner. Enough said."