Playing Close To Home, Thomas, Zoubek Provide Duke With A Lift

NEW YORK -- As New Jersey natives, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek are two of the only Duke players to return every year to neutral sites near their homes. They bring packs of family and friends to these affairs in the Tri-State area, host to some of the Blue Devils' best wins in the last four years.

And on Friday -- in perhaps Duke's best win in the area in the last four years, a 68-59 victory over No. 13 Connecticut -- Thomas and Zoubek were more than just glorified spectators, watching on the bench as Duke's superstars carried the day. This time, in the seniors' penultimate game in Madison Square Garden, the two players contributed as much as any others, combining for 13 points and 21 rebounds against one of the biggest frontcourts in the country on a night when the Blue Devils needed some help down low.

The performance was especially superlative for Thomas, who attended high school about 30 minutes from New York City. The power forward collected 11 points and 10 rebounds -- good for the first double-double in his career -- notched a career-high three blocks and converted a career-best 7-of-8 free throws.

Zoubek wasn't far behind. The center from Haddonfield, about two hours from the Garden, posted 11 rebounds, two shy of his career-high, and played as well as he has all year against the best competition he's faced.

Maybe it was the familiar faces in the crowd, but whatever the case, the duo managed to not only impress head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but also help secure Duke's third straight preseason tournament title.

"Thomas and Zoubek were the difference-makers for us," he said.

It wasn't just the numbers that distinguished this particular game from so many others for Duke's most veteran big men. It was the magnitude of the plays that it made -- and the mistakes that Thomas and Zoubek didn't make in the post.

Krzyzewski pointed out one pivotal sequence in the first half -- the biggest play in the first half, he said -- when Zoubek brought down an offensive rebound and found Kyle Singler at the top of the key for an open three, his only long ball of the night. The offensive rebound, one of a game-high seven for the 7-footer, gave Duke a 32-26 lead, which, at that point, was its largest lead of the evening. Zoubek kept another possession alive in the second half, grabbing an offensive board and looping a pass around a defender to the corner, where Jon Scheyer drained a three in front of the Blue Devils' bench to give Duke a 48-34 lead -- again, at that point, its biggest of the night. It would only grow from there.

In the box score, of course, Zoubek registers two offensive rebounds. In the course of the game, though, those two assists led to six points in a game in which momentum-swinging buckets were hard to come by. Pretty, it wasn't. But Zoubek's effort got the job done.

Duke would have needed that type of performance from its backup anyway -- Duke is tall this year, but the Huskies' frontcourt was viewed as better -- and with sophomore Miles Plumlee in foul trouble throughout, Zoubek became even more critical.

"It's definitely one of our best wins [in the Northeast] and a pretty decent performance personally," Zoubek said. "It feels great, especially because UConn is a big team, and a lot of people were questioning how the bigs were going to do. We did pretty well tonight."

"If they're not out there doing it, then somebody else has to do it," Thomas said, referring to Singler and Plumlee's time on the bench, saddled with fouls. "We were just happy we were able to make those plays."

And so were the troupes of family and friends that greeted the two players in the front rows of the Garden, long after the arena had cleared out and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" had accompanied the trophy presentation. The two players had time to meet with their fans in the interlude between the final buzzer and the takeoff of what the players call Duke Airlines, and Zoubek's immediate family had joined him for a Thanksgiving meal Thursday in New York, where the players celebrated the holiday in their Times Square hotel.

They might not have made the All-Tournament team -- those honors were reserved for Scheyer and Nolan Smith -- but the two players received perhaps the largest ovations from the crowd. The cheers of appreciation were far louder than any group of family or friends could have been.


Share and discuss “Playing Close To Home, Thomas, Zoubek Provide Duke With A Lift” on social media.