PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Duquesne sophomore guard Mike Lewis II went back to the lab, as the kids would say these days, following the team’s season-opening win against St. Francis Brooklyn.
Lewis II rebounded from his poor shooting performance on Saturday, scoring a game-high 22 points, to lead the Dukes past VMI Tuesday night, 77-61.
“The first game I don’t think I was ready to play,” Lewis II said afterwards. “I know I came out too cool in warm-ups and felt everything was going to be good and those guys weren’t going to come after me, and it showed in my performance.”
“I went back, got in the gym, buckled down, and came out and do what I do.”
The win improved Duquesne to 2-0 under first-year head coach Keith Dambrot and sets up a showdown with crosstown rival Robert Morris Sunday afternoon at the AJ Palumbo Center.
Lewis II hit his first shot of the night—a step-back three—to stake Duquesne to an early seven-point lead. He would attempt four more triples in the opening half, missing just once. The St. Louis, Missouri, native finished the night 5-9 from the field and 8-9 from the charity stripe.
Lewis II’s hot start must have been contagious, as the Dukes erupted for seven first half threes, four more than they hit altogether against St. Francis Brooklyn. The hot shooting ways propelled Duquesne to a 44-29 halftime lead.
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After VMI’s Bubba Parham hit a three to make it 29-25, Eric James responded with a trey of his own. On the Dukes next possession, Renee Castro-Caneddy hit a long-range shot from near the top of the key, and Lewis II followed with back-to-back triples to turn a two-possession game into a 15-point cushion.
“I thought he was good,” Dambrot said of Lewis II. “I thought he cost himself some points with his cutting…but we got to get him more than nine shots. He’s got to get himself more than nine.”
Tarin Smith chipped in with 21 points, including 15 in the second half. For the second straight game, the junior guard had a key stretch during the final 20 minutes, scoring six straight points to squash a VMI rally after the Keydets had trimmed the deficit to five with 11:51 remaining.
Tydus Verhoeven, who fouled out in only 10 minutes of play, recorded consecutive blocks during the same sequence to help keep VMI off the board for nearly three minutes.
Smith’s baseline jumper with 9:16 remaining stretched the Duquesne advantage to nine, and Eric Williams Jr.’s layup moments later pushed the lead back to double-digits. VMI would get no closer than nine the rest of the way, as the Dukes closed out the game at the line, hitting their final eight attempts.
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“It reminded me of a football team that ran the ball the whole first half and just kind of wore the defensive line out,” Dambrot said of the game. “They moved us around that first half with that Princeton offense and didn’t try to score until the last 12 seconds, and we came out dead on our feet—we just didn’t have any juice.”
Defensively, the Dukes avoided getting burned by the Keydets’ Princeton-style cuts in the first half but with a limited rotation fatigue became a factor in the second half. VMI shot 46 percent in the second half, including several easy baskets around the rim, and hit four threes.
“We just rallied,” Smith said of the second half. “Mike hit a couple big shots and had a couple big plays. Renee made plays. We just found a way to win which is really good, because last year when the game got close we might have faltered a bit. So I’m really proud of the guys.”
Duquesne forced the Keydets into 24 turnovers, which led to 27 points on the offensive end. After averaging more than 14 turnovers per game a year ago, the Dukes have just 18 total through their first two games.
The Dukes shot 41 percent from the floor but went 21-27 from the foul line. In comparison, VMI attempted just 13 free throws.
“That’s kind of how it’s going to be for us,” Dambrot said. “I hold them to a high standard but I’m also realistic enough to know it’s going to be teeth-pulling contest every day.”
Dambrot had to mitigate minutes in the second half as fouls mounted for Jordan Robinson, Verhoeven, and Williams Jr. The trio of Lewis II, Smith, and Castro-Caneddy accounted for all but 14 points as the Dukes’ big men were a combined 3-13 from the field.
“You have to have a balance,” Dambrot said. “You can’t just drive everything. You have to throw the ball inside at some point.”
Duquesne will have four days to work on its post play heading into the Robert Morris matchup. Until then, nights like Tuesday night from Lewis II help alleviate any concerns.
Tipoff against the visiting Colonials is set for 5:30 p.m.