PITTSBURGH — Keith Dambrot was very clear before his team’s win over Saint Louis on Wednesday that his team was entering a stretch in which Duquesne would have an understanding of where it stacked up in the Atlantic 10.
Was his team among the top of the conference and ahead of schedule, or in the middle of the pack?
One game is an early return, but it was a contest that had fans excited, and with good reason. Yes, the Dukes earned a crucial conference victory, but they also did it in a way that ought to inspire optimism for the Dukes going forward.
Offensively, Duquesne was tested with a lot of different looks. For the first time this season, Duquesne had to contend with a 1-3-1 zone, and the team has had struggles adjusting to defenses, but the learning curve was not so steep this time.
Duquesne was able to nail some corner threes at the end of the half, the last of which game from freshman forward Gavin Bizeau. Later in the game, with Saint Louis forward Hasahn French sitting at four fouls, the Billikens went back to the 1-3-1 to mask him in the back of the post. The much taller Billikens guards heavily pressured Duquesne in an effort to eliminate the three-point shots and just make the Dukes plain old uncomfortable. Almost immediately, it did not work, as Duquesne came away with a quick rebound and French fouled out.
“They are the best defensive team in the league,” Dambrot said. “They played more zone than they thought so they must think we stink or something shooting the ball.”
It was more of a 3-point shooting game than Dambrot expected, which gave Duquesne a clear advantage, even when their shots did not go in with any kind of regularity.
Saint Louis did not make its first 3-point shot until 4:23 remained in the second half and the Billikens finished the game 2 of 20 from deep.
Though Saint Louis was a plus-23 in rebounding, that was undone by the missed threes and 23 team turnovers, the Billikens’ second-highest total this season.
With Saint Louis bringing all five players in to rebound the basketball, any time Duquesne was able to get one, they were able to transition into a fast break.
Defensively, Duquesne was engaged on first-shot defense and won most of the important 50-50 rebounding battles in the second half. Saint Louis shot 38.8 percent from the field for the game and recorded a 31.3-percent clip in the second half, a stanza which has plagued Duquesne on the defensive end on most nights this season.
“They don’t really have any plays, so it’s more of a one-on-one challenge,” freshman guard Sincere Carry said. “You have to win your battle and if we force them to one shot and get the rebound, we can get out on the break because all of their players crash the board.”
In the second half, Duquesne seized control of the game and part of that came with ball movement and playing together. Dambrot has shortened the rotation from the beginning of this season and the team appears to be better off for it.
“We get better every day and we’re starting to trust each other,” said Carry. “We used to cry about minutes, but now if you get called out, you go out because you trust the next person. It makes the game much easier. We made great progress and it may even have surprised Coach Dambrot.”
Marcus Weathers remembered where the experts had Saint Louis versus where his Duquesne team was expected to stack up.
Last season, Duquesne was predicted by A-10 coaches and media to finish in 14th, last place, and placed 10th. This season, the poll had Duquesne 11th and Saint Louis first.
Dambrot has maintained that he likes the “us versus them” mentality, though he maintained that his team is so loose that it may not know whether it is playing at home or on the road.
“A lot of people are going to keep being surprised by us, we’re not going to see it as a surprise because we envisioned everything that’s happening right now,” Weathers said.
Duquesne is currently a half-game out of first place and in a three-way tie for second place in the conference with Davidson and Saint Louis, while 6-1 George Mason leads the pack, having played one more game than the trio at 5-1.
Still, even after staring 4-1 in their first five game, each of the Dukes’ previous conference wins came against teams below .500 in the A-10 and many questioned whether Duquesne was for real. Wednesday’s win will not completely answer those questions, but Weathers believes his team’s play will continue to do the necessary talking.
“We just come out every day and practice hard,” he said. “We let everyone in the league know we are serious. We’re trying to surprise a lot of people and playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
Dambrot considers the conference very much wide open, with each team having some warts, which means his Dukes may just be in the thick of it come March. To accomplish that feat, Dambrot understands there is still work that needs to be done.
“We have a good point guard, good five man, good four man and our wing guys are pretty good,” said Dambrot. “If we can be an upper-echelon defensive team is going to be the key. Until we do that, we will never be as good as we should.”
PLUSES AND MINUSES
It should come as no surprise that Weathers led Duquesne at a plus-10, with Carry right behind at a plus-9. Amari Kelly was a minus-7 in 12 minutes of play and Brandon Wade a minus-5 in two minutes.
HE SAID IT
“I’m the wrong guy to ask that. When LeBron comes to the game no one will watch the game, they’ll watch him. I won’t let him come until we’re really good. He cares about what we do, which is big.” – Dambrot on if LeBron James will come to a Duquesne game after Jay-Z attended Pitt-Duke Tuesday night
“We feed off the energy the fans brought today and we loved it. If we keep winning games we hope it becomes bigger and bigger.” – Carry thanking Duquesne fans