PITTSBURGH — When it comes to losses, the 78-71 final score in Duquesne’s loss to the Cornell Big Red at A.J. Palumbo Center pales in comparison to the one the Dukes suffered with 2:37 remaining on the clock in the second half.
That’s when redshirt junior and starting point guard Tarin Smith was helped off the floor by his teammates, without putting any weight at all on his right leg or its surgically repaired knee that Smith has had worked on twice, most recently this past summer.
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The loss to the Big Red is certainly dispiriting, as the Dukes fell to 2-2 after starting the season with a pair of victories.
But Smith, one of the team’s most experienced players and two-way leader, is a player the Dukes could ill afford to lose. The team started the season with five ineligible players that all need to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Graduate transfer Chas Brown hasn’t played yet this season thanks to a foot injury. Neither has junior college transfer Marko Krivacevic, who has a wrist injury. Senior forward Eric James went down with a knee injury of his own in Duquesne’s loss to Robert Morris on Nov. 19 and did not suit up against Cornell.
“It didn’t look good,” head coach Keith Dambrot said after the loss. “We can’t take any more injuries. If we have any more, I’m going to have to suit up and I’ve only got one hip. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
The injuries piling up has left Duquesne’s bench precariously thin, and it showed against Cornell. The teams played a pretty even first half, with Duquesne making a 9-1 run late in the opening period to open up an eight-point lead.
But the Dukes couldn’t finish and gave back five points in the final 23 seconds to go into the break up just three.
“We got up eight and then we made some bone-headed plays,” Dambrot said.
In the second half, it was more of the same, as the Cornell motion offense wore down the Duquesne man-to-man, usually with an open back-door look or a corner 3-pointer, and most of them ended up in the hands of Big Red guard Matt Morgan, who finished with a game-high 24 points.
“Quite frankly, we’re just not very good,” Dambrot said. “We’re trying. We’ve played pretty good in stretches, but then the minute they get hit in the mouth, bleh.”
The Big Red ended up shooting 51.9 percent from the floor, and it could have been worse, as Cornell shot just 20 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The Dukes essentially used a seven-man rotation, with Nicholas Kratholm playing just two minutes.
The lack of energy was exacerbated by Cornell pushing the pace. The Big Red had a 17-7 advantage in fast-break points and was able to easily break a late-game press as the Dukes tried to claw back into it.
Facing the aftermath of his team’s first loss of the 2017-18 season, Dambrot decided to make a change in the starting lineup. After starting each of the Dukes’ first three games of the season, Dambrot sat down usually productive guard Mike Lewis II and forward Jordan Robinson for the tip off.
In the place of Lewis and Robinson, two-sport star Kellon Taylor — who also plays football for Duquesne — made his first career start, as did freshman Tydus Verhoeven.
Dambrot said he made the change to “take the pressure” off after some struggles. After combining for just five (all Robinson’s) in Duquesne’s first loss of the season against Robert Morris on Nov. 19, Lewis and Robinson made big strides from game-to-game, putting together 13 and 8 points, respectively.
Of Duquesne’s true freshmen for the 2017-18 season, it seems that Dambrot has at least one budding star in guard Eric Williams, Jr. The 6-foot-5 native of New Haven, Michigan has started three straight games for the Dukes and came through on Monday with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his second career double-double.
But Dambrot thinks he can be even better, especially when it comes to fitting into the team concept Dambrot is trying to build.
“He’s done a good job, he’s got to play better than that, though,” Dambrot said. “No disrespect, we just talked to him for about 15 minutes in there. He’s got to pass the ball better. He’s got to take better shots. Otherwise, what it is, is that he’s got good numbers on a below-average team. That’s not what this is about.”
The issue, as it is with most of the team, is that Williams is just playing too many minutes while Dambrot is trying to get him adjusted to a new system at a new level.
“He’s done a good job, don’t get me wrong,” Dambrot said. “To ask a freshman to do that is tough. But the facts are that you’ve got to shoot better than 34 percent to win.”
NOTES, VIDEO, ETC.
Rene Castro-Caneddy tied a career high with 26 points. … Duquesne will next face Pitt in the City Game at PPG Paints Arena on Friday. … Attendance was 1,204.