DAYTON, OH — As the Duquesne men’s basketball team played in front of a sold-out UD Arena crowd of 13,147 it played with a larger chip on its shoulder than other games.
“Our team is a bunch of guys that Dayton didn’t recruit,” Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said. “A lot of our guys had good scholarship offers but they didn’t have high major scholarship offers. They’re just trying to show people they are good players, and they are. They’re good players, good guys and they are competitive.”
Duquesne led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but a combination of cold shooting, empty possessions and Dayton stringing shots together led to a 68-64 setback.
“We played really hard in the first half and took the crowd out of it,” redshirt sophomore center Michael Hughes said. “In the second half, we tried to do the same, but had some lapses that got them back into it. It’s basically the same trend every game with us. We just need to grind harder.”
Duquesne had an opportunity to end its five-game losing streak at UD Arena, but instead had to settle for a close loss, which brings it to 7-2 in games determined by five points or less.
It was clear by the silence that Duquesne earned the respect of most if not all attending Saturday’s game, but Dambrot has never been about moral victories and does not plan to start now.
“I don’t care about respect, I just care about winning championships,” said Dambrot. “Look, I’m 60 years old, if they don’t respect me now, they won’t respect. All I care about Duquesne fans see the opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament before they’re 120.”
In 40 minutes Saturday, Duquesne’s bench had two points which served as very noticeable for a variety of reasons.
For starters, Dayton had 32 bench points, a lot of which came from freshman forward Obi Toppin who proved why he is one of the front runners for Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Rookie of the Year with a career-high 26 points.
Toppin had his way with Duquesne on both ends of the ball. He also recorded four steals, had two blocks and down the stretch drew a charging foul which caused all in attendance to chant his name.
Duquesne attempted to charge at him in the first half in an effort to tire him out, but it did not work.
“I’ve been around the game a long time, my gut is he’s probably a pro,” Dambrot said. “That’s what an NBA team is looking for with people running to the rim, setting ball screens because you can’t guard the rim. He lets the game come to him, he’s a force to be reckoned with, they just better hope he doesn’t go too soon.”
Another reason for the two points was Tavian Dunn-Martin’s absence.
Dunn-Martin went down with an injury a Duquesne spokesperson stated was an ankle after the game. Statistics after the game showed he played 1:19 and of course did not return after the game, but was seen limping. His status for Wednesday’s game against St. Bonaventure is not officially known.
It was clear that Dunn-Martin’s shot making, ability to create for others and defense were all missed.
Duquesne’s lone bench points came from freshman forward Amari Kelly on a stolen inbounds pass he cleaned up for a basket. Otherwise, five shots were taken from the reserves and all were off the mark.
This fact became maximized when both Kelly and Hughes picked up three fouls. The two had to trade court time with each playing with redshirt sophomore forward Marcus Weathers whose 34:44 court time, was a season-high.
It seemed as though the time gassed Weathers as he was responsible for two critical turnovers at game’s end but Dambrot did not go with freshman forward Gavin Bizeau who had two fouls in just over two minutes and fired a three-point shot which was off the mark.
Another result of the lack of offensive spark from the Duquesne bench was Sincere Carry playing all 40 minutes. It was his third time playing at least 40 minutes, though his 42 minute effort at George Washington came with an overtime period.
“We did the best we could, with Mike Hughes in foul trouble, that hurts you,” said Dambrot. “Amari is a young guy, he’s playing well, but he’s young. We relied on our point guard really, we put his hands on every play. To play him 40 minutes and expect him to play well on every play is a lot to ask.”
Dambrot admitted that being slim on the bench hurt his team, though Duquesne did play nine players compared to Dayton’s seven.
As the second half wore on, this did not matter.
“We can over analyze but they made more than we did,” Dambrot said. “They had more open ones and got us in transition which is a sign of tiredness. We rebounded better, but it is one of those deals where they made more when it mattered than we did.”
WILLIAMS JR FINDS FORM
It is no secret, that baskets have been harder for sophomore guard Eric Williams Jr to find, but his response Saturday was encouraging.
Recently, Dambrot stated that in order for Duquesne to take the next step, it needed Williams to produce.
Early on in the first half, Williams fired a three-point shot, and it went in. That seemed to provide a spark for the rest of his night.
Making the triple was key since Williams did not make any in three of his four previous games.
“In order to win this league or in the postseason, it comes down to the bigger guys on our team,” Hughes said. “Eric’s energy from the jump was really big for us. He’s been in a slump, but I don’t care what anybody says, everybody on this team has faith in him. He can 0-for-100, I’m still going to tell him to shoot the 101st one because he’s proven he is a good shooter and a good player. Even when he makes mistakes, no one is dropping their heads or lose faith in him. Just keep the background noise in the background and keep him on a straight and narrow path to allow him to keep being successful.”
Williams finished with 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting, his first such effort since Dec. 22 against NJIT.
“He has to continue to play at a high level for us to be a championship quality team,” said Dambrot. “Being a little slim on the bench I thought hurt us. Eric played better today I thought.”
DUST YOURSELF OFF AND TRY AGAIN
Earlier in this piece, the lack of bench production was mentioned in trying to pinpoint reasons for the loss.
Another one easily has to be getting to the free throw line. Really, Weather took all of Duquesne’s free throws, not one other Duke was able to accomplish that.
Duquesne was not aggressive enough. There was some dazzle with the first half production and a second half alley oop, but Duquesne settled for long shots that did not fall and perhaps due to the post foul trouble, extended minutes or fear of a whistle did not drive as much which created more empty possessions.
Towards the end of the game, Williams had a corner three-point shot in which the Dayton defender hit his hand after release and the official who was five feet from the play never blew his whistle.
Dayton meanwhile grabbed critical rebounds, and after its guard, Jalen Crutcher split free throws, won a critical 50-50 ball which allowed it to run down clock and proved to be a difference as Duquesne did not take care of the basketball down the stretch.
“We just got a little tired I think more than anything,” Dambrot said. “We didn’t make as many plays in the second half, but we still had opportunities to win the game. We kind of butchered up three plays at the end which cost us, but overall, competitively we showed great competitiveness, cared about winning and tried to make the right play. It’s part of the growth.”
It is that growth that Dambrot has to remind himself of. This Duquesne team has shown plenty of flashes but is entirely underclassmen based with Kellon Taylor choosing to focus on football.
In a matter of days, Duquesne can overcome a 19-point deficit, then surrender a 14-point advantage. All of this is part of the learning experience and Dambrot is not ashamed of it. He understands that this is the time for his team to learn, though the competitor in him certainly may not appreciate this process.
Hughes echoed a sentiment Dambrot has made all season long in stating his team needs to efficiently use practice time to be better.
During media availability for practices, which typically come the day before or on a travel day for road contests, Hughes is constantly a vocal leader and wants to see more of the same from his teammates.
“I spent 600 days on top of 365 watching, I can’t let this game be taken away again,” he said. “This is something I am so passionate about that I love so much. I put everything into that and I have to be able to come every day and days I don’t, I have to find a way.”
As it stands, Duquesne split a four-game set Dambrot viewed as critical and is in fifth place in the Atlantic 10.
“We’re certainly good enough to play with anyone in the league, we’re certainly good enough to lose to anyone in the league,” said Dambrot. “There’s not many teams in America with just freshmen and sophomores that can compete like that. I can be upset but I also can be proud of our competitiveness. As long as they are not selfish and try hard, I’ll live with the results. What else can we do?”
PLUSES AND MINUSES
In Saturday’s loss, three Duquesne players had a positive plus/minus with Kelly (+2) and Bizeau (+2), leading the way. Dunn-Martin (+1) rounded out the trio before his ankle injury. All of the other Duquesne players were in the red Williams (-8) and Weathers (-6).
HE SAID IT
“I’ve always been able to shoot, it was just a good look for me. I let it ride, you can’t pass up open shots. You don’t want to get competitive or complacent.” – Michael Hughes who sank his first three of the season in Saturday’s game