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NCAA BASKETBALL: A long, but rewarding journey

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The CBS cameras captured the moment beautifully.

There was Austin Dufault, on his knees and face down on the Staples Center court in front of a live national television audience, silently relishing the moment of March Madness following Colorado's Pac-12 championship game victory over Arizona last Saturday.

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"Finally," was the only word that came to his mind.

Finally, there was relief. Finally, he could hold his head high without regret. Finally, he and the Colorado men's basketball team had a date to the Big Dance.

"It's incredible," said Dufault, a 2008 Killdeer High School graduate. "It's been a long four years of hard work to finally get to this situation. It's all kind of paid off in the last week."

The journey to the NCAA Tournament has been arduous for the 6-foot-9, 225-pound senior forward.

But the best is yet to come.

Dufault, who holds Colorado'As school record for most games played in a career, leads the 11th-seeded Buffs (23-11) into their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 when they play No. 23-ranked and sixth-seeded UNLV (26-8) at 8:57 p.m. today in the second round of the South Regional at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.

Because the Buffs needed to win the Pac-12 tournament just to receive a bid to the national tournament, UNLV is heavily favored.

Dufault said his team is just fine with that.

"Nobody really expects much of us again," Dufault said. "Everyone is talking about how it's a good matchup, but they expect UNLV to win. We're coming in as underdogs like we have the whole year. I think we kind of thrive in that role, being the team that nobody thinks will do much. If we stick to our identity and what we do well, we'll give ourselves a great chance to win."

Dufault said reaching the national tournament is the perfect way to cap his senior season. He is averaging career highs of 10.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and recently reached milestones for points (1,048) and rebounds (504).

"This year, it's all just come together," Dufault said. "That's not to say there wasn't any struggles along the way this year at all, or that there wasn't any high moments in the past either. I've had a lot of fun the four years I've been playing here. This year has been something really special just to see the big goals you set as a player finally be realized. You're building every year for four years, going through the process to get to this point."

Parents move to Colorado helped

On Nov. 15, 2007, Dufault sat in the Killdeer school and signed his letter of intent to play for Colorado.

He admits there were times over the next two years when he wondered if he had made the right decision.

"I'd lie if I said that I didn't," Dufault said. "Going through all the ups and downs, it's difficult. There's always doubt that creeps into your mind. What if I would have done this or that?"

Dufault played above expectations as a freshman, averaging 8.2 points and 3.7 rebounds a game as he transitioned from a shooting guard -- the position that helped him gain attention on the national recruiting stage between his junior and senior years of high school -- to that of a post player and Colorado's big man.

That season, however, the Buffs lost a school-record 22 games and had just nine wins playing in front of often miniscule home crowds.

Back in his native state, North Dakota State -- one of the final schools to be crossed off on Dufault's list of potential destinations -- thrived and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Dufault said his parents, Rich and Karen, moving the family from Killdeer to Greeley, Colo., helped him through the difficult times.

"I know that I definitely couldn't have done it without them being out here and supporting me, just through the highs and the lows," Austin Dufault said. "Them being out here, being able to see their faces after games, has been incredible. I don't know if I'd have stayed out here for all four years if not for them being here with me and them always being encouraging and having them here to support me."

Rich Dufault, who was the longtime boys basketball coach at Killdeer, said the decision to move was difficult, but it has worked out better than he ever hoped.

He and Karen now teach in the Greeley area and attended all of their son's home games in Boulder, Colo., plus several more on the road.

"We would never have traded it. It's been a great experience," Rich Dufault said. "We've been from Maui to Manhattan. We've been across the whole landscape of the country watching and have enjoyed the ride. It's been quite an experience."

The worst and best of times

Dufault's sophomore season was his most difficult.

His production dipped to 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. After that season, head coach Jeff Bzdelik left the Buffs to take the same job at Wake Forest. Colorado hired Tad Boyle to replace him.

Suddenly, the Buffs had new life.

Dufault averaged just 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 52 percent from the field as he played a secondary offensive role. It didn't matter to Dufault though because, for the first time in several years, the Buffs were winning and he was a part of it.

They finished the regular season 21-13 and won three games in the National Invitation Tournament before falling to Alabama at Madison Square Garden.

Coming into this season, the Buffs weren't expected to do much. Pac-12 coaches picked them to finish 11th out of 12 teams in their first season in the conference.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the postseason.

The Buffs started winning, especially at home, where they finished 12-2 and averaged a school-record 7,800 fans at the Coors Events Center en route to a 19-11 regular-season record.

They did it all with a chip on their collective shoulder after last season's snub by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

"We took that as a huge motivation," Austin Dufault said.

Inspired, the Buffs won a school-record four consecutive wins in four days last week at the Pac-12 tournament, culminating with a 53-51 title game victory over Arizona to qualify for the national tournament.

"There's a lot of neat things with this group that no one thought would happen," Rich Dufault said.

Leaving on the way up

Austin Dufault said he plans to keep playing basketball after his career at Colorado ends. He'll likely hire an agent and look to play in Europe.

Though his numbers may not show it, Dufault hopes he can leave a legacy as one of the players who helped Colorado climb out of dismal times and establish itself as a program that reaches the national tournament on an annual basis.

"Looking back on my career, I'm pretty proud of everything I accomplished and proud that I've helped our team build and the program build," Dufault said. "I can look back on it and now be thought of as one of the founding guys for where our program is headed. Hopefully it will continue to build and we'll have more 20-win seasons and tournament appearances from now on."

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