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Saturday, March 27, 2010
Updated: April 1, 9:51 PM ET
Smith's career game honors late father

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- The text messages started rolling in to Nolan Smith's phone early in the morning, alerting the Duke guard to quickly turn on the television.

In their hotel room, Nolan and his roommate, Jordan Davidson, flipped the channel to ESPN just in time to catch the last bit of an "Outside the Lines" piece on Nolan's father, Derek.

Nolan listened to Derek's former teammates talk admirably about the man who died in 1996 of a heart attack and watched clips from his dad's college and NBA career.

"He's an upbeat guy but there were times, especially when they showed pictures of his dad, that he got a little reflective," Davidson said. "I didn't ask, but I could just tell."

His father on his mind as always, Nolan sent out a quick tweet before leaving for Reliant Stadium:

"This one's for you, Dad. I love you!"

The father-to-son missive popped up on Monica Malone's BlackBerry, bringing Nolan's mother -- Derek's wife -- to tears. She paused, gathered herself and did what she's done every day since Duke played its first NCAA tournament game on March 19.

Nolan Smith
Nolan Smith put together the best game of his career at just the right time -- an Elite Eight matchup.

"In 1980, when Derek was playing, I used to say the same prayer every morning, 'Please, God, just let us win one more game,'" said Malone, who has since remarried. "I said the same prayer before every tournament game this year."

Monica's prayers, as well as those of the Duke faithful, were answered when the Blue Devils won one more game, the one more that finally put the program over the hump and into the Final Four for the first time since 2004.

Powered by Nolan's career-high 29 points, the Blue Devils beat Baylor 78-71 and the most maligned No. 1 seed in this tourney field became the only No. 1 to make it to the Final Four.

And now, 30 years after his father cut down the nets in Indianapolis and led Louisville's Doctors of Dunk to the 1980 championship over UCLA, Nolan Smith packs his bags for the same city in the hopes of gathering his own piece of nylon.

"I got a little emotional in the room watching, but it really motivated me," said Nolan, who was awarded South Regional Most Outstanding Player. "I always play for him, to honor him and he's always with me, but today I could really feel him. There were a couple of times, a couple of shots, that I knew he was with me."

In one magical 40 minutes, the son channeled the father, taking his game at the Bears with the same sort of relentless intensity that became Derek's trademark through college and a nine-year pro career.

Nolan was the only player strong enough, quick enough and deft enough to penetrate Baylor's long and athletic zone, and he did so repeatedly.

With Duke down 59-57 in the pivotal stretch of a high-intensity, high-energy game, Smith scored seven consecutive points, including a dagger 3-pointer with 3:33 to play that all but sealed the victory.

When the buzzer sounded, the smile that stretched across Smith's face seemed to go for miles.

"He kind of keeps that stuff to himself, but we knew [about the meaning of Indianapolis], we already knew," Kyle Singler said. "We know how much he misses his father and that to do this, to have this game on this day, is very special to him."

Singler's tacit understanding of his teammate's emotions, much like Davidson's recognition of Smith's feelings, is just further example of the chemistry this Duke team likes to talk about. It is a cohesiveness formed from the stings of failure and the value of time together. Duke has that rarest of commodities -- upperclassmen -- and has won as many games on grit and intestinal fortitude as talent and skill.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski even conceded, "We're not a great team. We are a really good team, but we have great character."

It all looks and sounds familiar to Malone.

Nolan Smith
Smith and the Blue Devils will return to the Final Four for the first time since 2004.

"This team reminds me so much of Derek's Louisville team in 1980," she said. "There's a closeness to this team just like they had then. I've seen this team jell and come together over the years, deal with the losses and really trust one another. That's what Derek's team did as well."

Kumbaya sentiment aside, were it not for Nolan, the Devils might still be facing that nagging "no Final Four since" question.

Singler, saddled with two fouls early, finished 0-for-10 from the field -- the first basket-less game of his college career -- and the Bears dominated Duke's bigs, outscoring the Devils 40-20 in the paint.

But Smith and Jon Scheyer partnered to deny Baylor its first Final Four bid since 1950.

Entering the Elite Eight game, Scheyer was 6-of-26 from behind the arc. Against Baylor, he sunk 5 of 10.

"Coming into the game, I wasn't going to worry about or think about my shot," Scheyer said. "I was just going to let it go if I was open. I really just wanted to follow my instincts and not worry about it."

It is that sort of freedom -- the freedom to just be -- that eluded Smith for years.

Since the day his father died, Smith has tried to remain a rock for his family. Only 8 when his dad passed, he wrapped his mother in an embrace and told her, "Mom, I'm the man of the house now."

"He is the strongest boy in the world, the strongest," said his stepfather, Curtis Malone.

Keenly aware of his father's legacy, Smith carried it with pride. He never complained and never said no when asked to tell the story of his father.

I always play for him, to honor him and he's always with me, but today I could really feel him. There were a couple of times, a couple of shots, that I knew he was with me.

-- Duke guard Nolan Smith

But it is a heavy burden to carry, the memories of a man who shone brightly and died too suddenly.

Nolan opted not to attend Louisville, wisely recognizing that playing in the literal shadow of his father's jersey hanging in the rafters would just be too hard.

Still, even at Duke, the quiet player who keeps his thoughts to himself felt the weight as he embarked on his own collegiate path. The comparisons were inevitable and endless, shackles forming even when Smith didn't realize it.

Finally at the end of last season, OTL ran its segment on Derek Smith for the first time and Nolan watched.

"That was really a cleansing for him," Krzyzewski said. "We cried watching it. We all did, but then we talked and I think he really felt good after that. He didn't have to tell that story anymore. It's a beautiful story but he could just be who he is. I think that was an amazing moment for him. It's like a weight came off of him and he could just be himself."

Added Monica Malone, "That was therapy for him. It was the first time he ever let it out. He could see it and feel it and experience it. He needed to do that."

It is no coincidence that since then, Smith has more than doubled his offensive productivity, averaging 17 points per game this season compared to 8.4 last season.

And it is no coincidence that when he watched the special the second time around, Smith left the room imbued on the wings of an angel instead of burdened by the pain of a memory.

"I've thought about going to Indianapolis like my dad did since this tournament started," Smith said. "After I watched that today, I just played on adrenaline. I knew he was watching over me and I felt like I could do anything."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.