FAIRFAX, Va. – Duquesne women’s basketball was voted the A-10 preseason favorite but the Dukes’ season has gone far from expected.
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Head coach Dan Burt’s team stumbled out of the gates, going 7-8 in its first 15 games. A far cry from the 20-win pace the program has averaged in recent seasons. Burt revealed following the team’s 60-57 win over George Mason Sunday that the team’s most recent setback sparked an impromptu team meeting.
“Two days ago we really had a strong, positive team meeting that really aired a lot of really raw emotion and took care of elephants in the room,” Burt admitted. “I really feel our kids in really good place now, and that’s one through 16, so I think good days are coming.”
In sports you frequently hear of closed-door meetings that are meant to recalibrate a team’s focus, and often the players themselves necessitate these secret conferences. That was not the case for the Dukes. “It was all of us,” Burt claimed.
The fact the airing of grievances came just days after a humbling 15-point home loss to Davidson suggest the issues hanging over the team had reached an apex.
When pressed about the timing of the meeting, Burt bluntly said it was long overdue.
“The timing could have been sooner, probably,” Burt said. “ But when you’re 7-8 and you have, frankly, the pedigree we have and the expectations we have, we needed to sit down and figure out what was wrong.”
“It wasn’t wrong maybe player to player, but how can we coach them better? We can’t get defensive as coaches. We’ve got to be able to sit there say, ‘How am I not coaching you right? How can I reach you more? How can we find more success together?’ A collaboration.”
Burt drew headlines during his Davidson press conference for calling his team, “a bad basketball team that doesn’t play hard enough, is selfish and frankly can’t shoot a basketball to save our lives at this point.” For a senior-laden team with high expectations, though, such comments clearly had a purpose.
It’s also telling in his post-game interview one game later that Burt admitted maybe the staff was as much a problem as the players. That’s a coach who has a good grasp of the current state affairs and isn’t afraid to turn the blame around on himself. The core of this group has been together for several years now, and just like families, teams require informal settings to clear the air, to speak freely without consequence.
Sometimes these meetings work, and sometimes they don’t. The true measure of any team is if they will grow together from that moment? Time will tell, and while the first 20 minutes of Sunday’s game suggest not much changed, the energy and urgency Duquesne played with in the second half exhibited a renewed focus. The performance even prompted one George Mason staffer to say, “That’s the team everybody expected at the beginning of the season.”
NEW APPROACH TO CRITICISM
Burt has tried everything in recent weeks to ignite a spark, and the team recently took up a new saying in hopes of attacking its problems in more constructive manner.
“We’re using this new saying, ‘Be hard on the problem and easy or soft on the person,’” Burt said.
Following his team’s poor first half shooting performance against George Mason, Burt approached the locker room speech with a different tone.
“We were really hard on the problem, looking at some different ways we could really get some action,” Burt said. “But really at the end of the day, it wasn’t the sets we were running, it was jus the fact that the ball wasn’t going in the hoop. So what we wanted to do was just keep encouraging them to attack the basket.”
The tactic worked. Libby Bazelak hit a baseline jumper in the opening seconds of the third quarter and it seemed to break the lid on the basket. Suddenly, everything was falling for the Dukes. During one key stretch, Conor Richardson, Julijana Vojinovic, and Kadri-Ann Lass combined to drain four straight three-pointers to hand Duquesne just its second lead of the game at 36-34. The Dukes would drill six triples in the second half altogether.
George Mason responded by grabbing the lead back and even led by as many as five with 4:40 remaining, but the Dukes kept attacking. They finally went ahead for good with 1:17 left on Paige Cannon’s basket. Halle Bovell came through with the big defensive play moments later, and Chassidy Omogrosso sank two clutch free throws to preserve the win.
For one day, Duquesne’s roller coaster season seemed to be back on the up-swing, and hopefully, to stay.
“We’ll go get some ice cream, we’ll celebrate it until midnight, and then we’ll turn our complete focus to Saint Joe’s,” Burt said.