PITTSBURGH — With 37 seconds remaining in the overtime period, Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot set up a play looking to break a tie against Eastern Kentucky.
He immediately knew who would take the shot. There was no doubt in his mind.
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All season long, Dambrot has ridden the hot hand, and Saturday afternoon would be no different, but there was a small problem.
That hot hand was Eric Williams Jr. who had played all but one minute in this game and was starting to cramp.
“I didn’t think we could win if I didn’t play him 44 out of 45 minutes, simple as that,” Dambrot said. “I don’t think anyone else at his spot played that well. He practiced well. Is that ideal? No, but I felt that he was our best player and we needed to play him.”
It has been a challenging season in many respects for Williams Jr. This season, he lost his starting spot for four games, a decision which started for disciplinary reasons. In an earlier stretch against Radford and Notre Dame, baskets were hard to come by and at times he has battled his own teammates for rebounds, boards that he was relied on to grab last season.
This offseason, Williams Jr. put on 25 pounds of muscle and it was for games such as this one in which every play down the stretch mattered.
“I just thought we had a pet play to get him on the block, he was playing better than anybody we had, he’s one of our best conditioned guys and he’s a good free throw shooter,” said Dambrot. “I thought the play would go as well. Every once in a while I make a good decision.”
Williams Jr. approached the right post and put up a shot which hit all around the rim before finally dropping.
This basket proved the difference after Eastern Kentucky’s Tre King missed a free throw which would have tied the game allowing Duquesne to win an 85-84 contest Saturday at the Palumbo Center.
Eric Williams Jr. provided the @UPMC Game Changing Moment in @DuqMBB's OT win yesterday. Check out the sophomore's hook shot that broke an 83-all tie and put the home team in front for good. #GoDukes pic.twitter.com/2anIHDJgH1
— Duquesne Athletics (@GoDuquesne) December 23, 2018
The question was raised to Dambrot as to why Michael Hughes did not take the shot and the answer was because he was out of juice.
Hughes was playing his second game from a knee contusion and still was not 100%. He also saw a minutes increase from 15 against Penn State to 26.
Dambrot played Hughes more in the second half expecting the game to be close and the center was involved in the final play of regulation, contesting a Nick Mayo three which would have won EKU the game had it dropped.
Hughes finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds, which Dambrot credited more to brains and gutting it out.
WHERE DOES THIS WIN RANK?
So many fans felt the comeback win over Longwood was the best of the season, but certainly Dambrot was not on that list.
Prior to this game, perhaps the biggest win of the season was the one against UIC. Duquesne had to embrace the uncomfortable.
Dambrot does not like admitting desperation but did after that game by indicating his team’s switch to a zone defense, which seemed to frustrate UIC, which had attended Duquesne’s previous game against William & Mary. UIC had a scout on Duquesne but was not prepared for the zone.
At halftime of Saturday’s game, Duquesne squandered two 10 point leads and admittedly were lucky to be down six, aided by a flagrant foul call and a mini run in the final minute.
Still, Dambrot had reached that desperation stage in more ways than one.
First off, the second-year Duquesne coach challenged his team.
“The first half we just got down went into the locker room and made adjustments,” redshirt sophomore guard Tavian Dunn-Martin said. “Just play harder on defense, show that we care. We just wanted to pick it up and show him (Dambrot) that we cared.”
With that objective clearly stated, Dambrot put his team in that desperation zone again which was effective.
In a way, the zone is not desperation since the team frequently spends time practicing it but the defense has not been used in the game much if at all.
Additionally, Hughes, as stated above, was not 100% and Dambrot believes that will still take another couple of weeks, which would correspond with the beginning of conference play.
Duquesne also had to overcome a technical foul call on Williams Jr., a call that was given by head referee Tony Chiazza.
On a deadball, Chiazza, who was on top of the play, assigned possession to EKU and Williams Jr. protested the decision. It appeared as though Chiazza warned Williams Jr. who continued to express his displeasure before a whistle came and Eastern Kentucky got two free throws.
Williams Jr. did not comment on the whistle but Dambrot, who was vocal to Chiazza after the call and then sent assistant coach Rick McFadden for a brief word during the media timeout, offered a small concession.
“He didn’t like me much tonight,” said Dambrot. “He was more mad at me than Eric.”
While Duquesne has struggled figuring out what kind of team it has, Hughes and Sincere Carry have generally been the most consistent on the court.
Carry uncharacteristically got into early foul trouble and fouled out with 4:11 in regulation, which added another wrinkle to this game.
Not only did Duquesne have to come back from a double-digit deficit in the second half, but had to do so without its starting point guard that contributes on both ends of the floor in a variety of ways.
Carry’s pass-making was gone, as was his consistent defense which comes against the opposing team’s best player.
All of these factors considered, this may have been Duquesne’s biggest win of the season and against a team which made the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
EKU coach A.W. Hamilton had his team provide pressure but did so at select times, coming from behind to try and earn a steal, something Duquesne had to guess on.
“This was an important win for us, especially before break,” Dunn-Martin said. “Come back, regroup and get together for the next game.”
After a tough loss to Penn State, the emotional aftermath in terms of Dambrot explaining his two technical fouls and the players backing him on social media, no win may have been more important to this team from an emotional standpoint.
As said several times this season, Dambrot is not going to be able to make everyone happy.
For the first time this season, Mike Lewis II did not start and he was not on the floor in any capacity during the second half or overtime period.
Lewis II has seen his minutes decrease and now averages 16.75 a game after averaging 31.5 in his past two seasons at Duquesne.
During the second half, Lewis II never took off his warmup gear. Dambrot told reporters after the game that Lewis II is not injured.
Lamar Norman Jr. was in a similar boat and he played just two minutes in this game. Norman came in twice and fouled almost instantly both times and took one shot, a semi-open three-point shot which appeared rushed and missed off the right side of the rim.
Dambrot stated the reason for these two not seeing the floor was that Duquesne needed its best ball-handling guards on the floor.
As it stood, Duquesne had 21 turnovers and its margin for error was thinner facing a double-digit deficit.
It was freshman guard Brandon Wade who played 11 minutes and had two assists to one turnover, while making all four of his free throws. Wade did not play against Penn State.
Wade filled the floor and looked for his teammates and Dambrot seemed pleased with the performance.
“He just has to get a little bit better,” Dambrot said. “I like how he was at practice. He is one of the guys that never complains and works to get better. he had one jittery stretch but overall he did a great job.”
It seems as though Dambrot will dictate guard playing time more on matchup and perhaps hot hand if someone can prove himself and the former was certainly the case Saturday.
This will be worth monitoring as the season goes on and for Dambrot, it is not personal, even if the players may in the heat of the moment fail to see it that way.
Before Dambrot, Duquesne had trouble closing out games. This was especially true in the season prior to Dambrot coming to the Bluff.
Dambrot is trying to develop a closer’s mentality in his team which largely has been successful.
Duquesne had to close against Radford and did so, it stayed together against Longwood and did so again Sunday, with all of these coming in addition to surviving the UIC game.
It could be argued that Duquesne did not close in any of its three losses, but the losses all have the common thread of cold second half shooting with hurt the team. It was the defense which kept Duquesne in those fights but the team was just not good enough on those days.
Saturday’s win does help Duquesne develop that closer’s mentality.
“This is a fragile game,” Dambrot said. “If you don’t win close games, that closer in the ninth inning doesn’t close. We’ve all seen it. Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t throw to first base. The more wins you have the more credibility and less fragility you have.”
HE SAID IT
“Did I like it? No. This is going to sound strange but I am a basic introvert. I am a relatively quiet, calm person off the court. I don’t like to be portrayed that way but you can never worry about what people think of you, but look yourself in the mirror and make judgments every day if you have good morals, ethics, make the right decisions, doing the team justice, helping young people get better, as long as I do that I can take criticism. Some people are scared of criticism and put themselves out there like I did. If I do that at Akron it would have been no big deal, I’ve been there so long but when you do it at a new spot, some people will cringe. I didn’t commit a crime but I got a lot of publicity for Duquesne, you could view it that way. I’m sure some people don’t like publicity but at least people will know that I care. I want to win and at 60 years of age, I still have tremendous passion and desire to be best. The rest I can take.” – Dambrot on the past few days after he received two technical fouls in the Penn State game