By David Driver/Special Correspondent
RICHMOND, Va. – VCU drew its 110th straight sellout here Tuesday night and many of the fans wore yellow T-shirts that read “FEAR THE HAVOC,” a term that gained traction under former head coach Shaka Smart.
But Duquesne showed little fear against the Rams early on, using a barrage of 3-pointers to grab a 13-point lead late in the first half.
But the Dukes succumbed to the intensity in the second half by VCU, which stormed back to win 78-67 over Duquesne while scoring 50 points after intermission. It was the first time in 14 games that the Dukes were outrebounded, as they lost the battle of the boards 50-31 and their normally stubborn defense wilted before a frenetic home crowd.
Dukes reserve guard Tarin Smith shook his head and starting guard Rene Castro-Caneddy stared ahead in disbelief as they headed to the lockerroom after the loss – the first after three conference wins for the Dukes.
What will the Dukes learn from the tough road loss?
“Just to calm down on the road,” said Dukes guard Eric Williams, Jr., who had 12 of his 15 points in the first half. “We just have to be more prepared. Just a different atmosphere (at VCU). I think we should have pulled this one out. I think we just got outhustled. I think we will be fine.”
Despite the loss head coach Keith Dambrot promised his team will be heard from in conference play.
“It is not the same old Duquesne, I will tell you that,” said the Dukes mentor.
The Dukes, who fell to 3-1 in A-10 play, have now lost all six games to VCU in a series that began less than 10 years ago.
“We got popped in the mouth,” Dambrot said. “We just have to react to it. We have to be the best defensive team in the league. This is a hard place to play. They are good. They won the battle of toughness. We didn’t do the little things to win. I give our guys credit; they believe in themselves. Somewhere down the line this game will help us. Or it will hurt us; that is my job.”
The visitors were paced by guard Mike Lewis II, who had 14 of his 23 points in the first half. Castro-Caneddy added 11 points and Smith came off the bench to score 11.
“Our offense was more fluid in the first half,” Lewis said. “The little things killed us. We did a great job in the first half of keeping the crowd out of the game. In the second half … they hit a couple of threes. A win would have been huge. This is one of the toughest places to play, not only in our conference but in the country. We will take this loss and learn from it. I am sure we will see those guys again.”
If so it will be in the conference tournament in March in the nation’s capital since VCU does not play in Pittsburgh in regular-season action.
The Rams, who trailed by 13 late in the first half and by eight at halftime, turned up the defensive intensity in the second half and finally tied the game at 43 with 11:13 left.
Lewis hit a basket and free throw to make it 46-43 for the Dukes, but the Rams tied it at 46 on another 3-pointer and then took the lead for good at 49-46 on a 3-pointer by Mike’l Simms with 9:51 to go.
Duquesne (12-5) lost as starting forward Chas Brown and reserve center Jordan Robinson each picked up their third foul in the first half. Both players fouled out in the second half as did forward Tydus Verhoeven.
“Our centers only played 17 minutes” due to fouls, Dambrot said. “The game would have been different. We have to stay out of foul trouble with our two big guys.”
VCU guard Jonathan Williams had 16 of his 21 points in the second half and forward Justin Tillman had 17 rebounds to go along with 10 points.
The Dukes had no offensive rebounds in the first half, as VCU dominated the boards 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. The visitors got to the foul line just three times in the first half, and made one, while the Rams were five of 11 at the charity stripe in the first half and 21 of 29 overall.
Duquesne made it 31-18 on a trey by Lewis with 4:23 left in the first game and took another 13-point lead on a basket by Lewis with 3:24 left in the opening stanza.
Dambrot was hoping for a game in the 60s against the Rams, who have made the NCAA tournament every year since 2011.
“They are going to win games in this league for sure,” VCU head coach Mike Rhoades said of the Dukes.
NOTES: Among those on hand at VCU was Matt Doherty, in his first season as an associate commissioner of the A-10. He is a former player at the University of North Carolina and a former head coach of Notre Dame, UNC, Florida Atlantic and SMU. Doherty remembers watching Dambrot when he coached LeBron James in high school in Ohio. “I have known him for a long time. People who know college basketball know what a good coach he is,” Doherty told PGH Sports before Tuesday’s game. “The foundation is in place for success. Dave Harper is a sharp AD (at Duquesne). He was smart to get Keith. I think that is a magical combination.” … The Dukes return to action and host La Salle on Saturday … The Dukes were six of 14 from the foul line and had just eight turnovers.
Editor’s note: David Driver is a free-lance writer and can be reached at www.davidsdriver.com