As Keith Dambort puts it, the on-court presence of Sincere Carry is comparable to the on-ice presence of Sidney Crosby. Without them, their teams are forced to operate without a focal facilitator.
Suddenly, things get a lot harder.
That’s a lesson Duquesne learned in an 80-74 loss to VCU at
A.J. Palumbo Center on Saturday that snapped a five-game winning streak — the team’s first misstep since suffering a road defeat from Davidson on Jan. 5.
The Dukes led VCU by as much as nine points and trailed by as many as 11, exemplifying the ups and downs a young and inexperienced team is forced to weather when it loses a player responsible for 50 percent of its offense.
Carry averages 12.1 points per game (tied for second on the team), 5.8 assists per game (first on the team) and 2.8 steals-per-game. For even more context, Duquesne’s prized freshman was leading the Dukes in scoring (14.2) and minutes (37.3) through six games of Atlantic 10 play. It’s safe to say his absence on Saturday was harshly felt.
“The facts are we’re taking our best defender, our leading scorer in the A-10, our leading assist guy, who creates about 50 percent of our offense, out of our lineup,” Dambrot said after the game. “So, guys have to play outside of their realm a little bit – and you take some bad shots.”
VCU came out with a stymieing full-court press that visibly overwhelmed freshman guard Brandon Wade in his first career start, and quickly raced to a 16-5 advantage within the first five minutes of play. But again, with Carry on the floor, the early adversity may have been handled differently.
“I think in the beginning of the game, (the team) showed a lack of confidence playing without him because they’re not stupid, too,” said Dambrot. “They know. (Carry) isn’t just one of the best freshmen in the league, he’s one of the best players in the league and that was just a little too much for us to overcome.”
But the moment didn’t appear to be too much for the Dukes at all. They responded to VCU’s punch with a 16-0 run of their own, sparked by efficient shooting from Frankie Hughes, Tavian Dunn-Martin and Gavin Bizeau – who combined to go 8-of-12 from three in the first half – and ultimately held a two-point lead at halftime. But then, as Dambrot alluded to after the game, poor shot selection ensued. The Dukes missed 20 of their 33 attempts in the second half – including a 2-of-13 mark from beyond the arc after going 8-for-15 in the first half.
The Rams capitalized, grinding out 48 points in the paint and controlling the glass, 48-29, against a Duquesne frontcourt missing forward Austin Rotroff – ruled out for the year with a torn ACL. Carry’s injury was categorized as “knee soreness” in both knees. His timeline for a return is unclear.
“It’s going to be something he’ll have to deal with most of his career,” said Dambrot.
DUNN-MARTIN FLASHES POTENTIAL
On a positive note, Carry’s injury led to an expanded role for Dunn-Martin and the sophomore Akron transfer took full advantage. He finished with a career-high 21 points (7 of 10 free-throw attempts) in 35 minutes off the bench. His energy was evident – and rather contagious – draining and-1 three-pointers, pestering VCU ball-handlers, dishing five assists and even setting up Eric Williams Jr. for a SportsCenter Top-10 worthy reverse alley-oop.
Dunn-Martin’s play was an encouraging sign for Dambrot, but also reflectant of what he’s seen from the 5-foot-8 guard in a practice setting.
“I thought he was a little tired but overall he played well,” said Dambrot. “He’s capable. He’s a little jitterbug, he’s not scared. He can shoot the ball. He passes the ball well. …He’s a good, tough little guy that nobody wanted. I make my living with guys that nobody wants.”
However, for everything he did well, Dunn-Martin was still partially critical of himself following the game after finishing with four turnovers in the second half as fatigue kicked in.
“I think I’m in pretty good shape to handle (the workload) but it was kind of hard. You’re just playing without taking a break,” Dunn-Martin said. “I thought I did pretty good, but toward the end I got kinda tired and made some mistakes I shouldn’t have made that kinda cost us the game.
“We missed (Carry and Rotroff) a lot. Sincere especially.”
LEARNING FROM A LOSS?
The loss on Saturday was only Duquesne’s sixth of the season, and it’s already January 26th. Considering the depths this previously dormant program had been in, that’s a rather remarkable feat and one the entire Duquesne community should be ecstatic about. Though the season is far from over, The Dukes could very well close out the season with a sub-500 record with a final 11-game stretch that will include tests against Rhode Island, Dayton twice and trip down to Saint Louis.
In reality, Duquesne isn’t a team possessing enough offensive firepower to run opponents out of the gym. This group is going to need to learn the traits required in order to close out close games – like Saturday.
“I think we’re pretty good. I don’t think we’re championship quality yet, but we’re pretty good,” said Dambrot. “We’ve got enough ingredients to where we can beat most people on any given night and we can lose to anybody on any given night.”
So, it’s likely that a majority of the final 11 games will come down to the wire. And in turn, this season’s outcome will be determined by their ability – or inability – to prevail in those adverse moments.
“I feel like there’s a lot (for us) to learn,” said Hughes. “Just toward the end, we’ve gotta be more solid as a group. We’ve gotta know what we have to do to get out with a win with less mistakes. We all (need) to be on the same page knowing the play-call, (and) getting back on defense.”
NOT YOUR USUAL PALUMBO
The 3,706 people who spent their Saturday afternoons at the Palumbo Center represented a clear byproduct of the revitalized energy Dambrot’s quick success has injected into the Duquesne program. Basketball on the Bluff is fun again, and it’s been this way for a minute, it’s just that more and more people are continuously beginning to realize it.
A rowdy student section glowing with neon red had VCU players shaken up on their foul shots, and the overall electric atmosphere from the crowd – even despite the loss – was quite fascinating after all of the years of empty seats and silence. Even the pregame player introduction production has been amped up.
And, on top of it all, 12-year Antolena Damico absolutely knocked her national anthem performance out of the park.
“I’m proud of the Duquesne fans and the Duquesne community and the Pittsburgh community because that’s a pretty good crowd,” said Dambrot. “And if we do our job – it’s not on them it’s on us – then they’ll keep coming back because Pittsburgh’s an unbelievable sports town.
Next up for the Dukes is a home test against Rhode Island on Wednesday. The Rams are 4-2 in conference play riding a three-game win streak after knocking off VCU on Jan. 23.