PITTSBURGH– As a trio of Duquesne women’s basketball seniors took their seats at the team’s postgame press conference, Conor Richardson was the one asking questions after her team’s 81-78 victory Saturday afternoon over a VCU team currently atop the Atlantic 10 standings.
“What happened,” she asked.
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While she tried to wrap her head around the 20-30 minutes prior, the two other seniors, Kadri-Ann Lass and Chassidy Omogrosso appeared just as puzzled trying to figure out the final score as final stats had not yet made their way into the Aloe Suite.
When the seniors had their questions answered, it was finally okay for the team to try and put the pieces together as to how a 15th victory was earned.
By no means was the effort an easy one, especially with Duquesne trailing by eight points with 2:02 remaining in regulation, but it was a game in which the team had to make a choice.
A loss in this game could have been a heartbreaking one and with just two regular season games remaining before the Atlantic 10 Championship begins Mar. 5 with campus site games, a defeat could have resulted in the Duquesne team which was mired in inconsistency.
Instead, Duquesne’s seniors led by example with Richardson draining a three-point basket and Omogrosso making one of her own with 7.1 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game.
“It just shows that we’re really just all in,” Richardson said. “Everyone has bought in and this is the team I know and love. This is the Duquesne Dukes right here.”
The norm more so than ever was press conference where Duquesne coach Dan Burt was the lone voice. Press conferences are ways for fans, recruits, conference officials and many more to hear about your team and it is clear that the players speaking has been viewed as a privilege, sometimes a reward for playing well.
While the Dayton victory may have served as Duquesne’s most complete effort of the season, this may have been the most crucial win for the fight the team had to display and the longer term consequences that losing this game could have presented.
“We finally woke up and realized that these teams are not just going to give us these wins,” said Richardson. “Just because we were picked to finish first means nothing. That’s preseason. Everyone is going to give us their best. We finally woke up and decided to take these games. Everyone has bought in and we are on the same page.”
VCU meanwhile had an opportunity to clinch a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season title with a win in this game and the automatic first-round conference championship bye which came with it, but now will have to either wait out Sunday’s Fordham game against UMass, or win Wednesday at Saint Louis.
“What a great game today, we knew it was going to be a battle,” VCU coach Beth O’Boyle said. “Anytime you’re on the road this time of year, you know you have to execute for 40 minutes, today it was 45. I’m very pleased with our team, effort and growth we made this season. Unfortunately we fell short today.”
Duquesne’s victory Saturday also places it in solo fifth in the A-10 standings. It had been deadlocked with Saint Louis, but the Billikens fell at Davidson, an important result since Duquesne did not own the tiebreaker in that scenario.
A RANGE OF EMOTIONS
It was quite the game for Chassidy Omogrosso and certainly not just because she led all scorers with 21 points.
Omogrosso was able to both surpass April Robinson for fourth place on Duquesne’s all-time scoring list and eclipse the 1,600 career points plateau on the same three-point basket.
Robinson served as a mentor towards Omogrosso during the latter’s freshman season, before turning the reigns over. It has been a four-year stretch of ups and downs for Omogrosso who of course started as the first player off the bench and after a slow start to the season, lost her starting spot, but she has remained engaged in helping this team win.
“Hard work really pays off in the end,” she said. “I’m not just getting open out of nowhere, my teammates are helping me. It’s a blessing.”
As for Omogrosso’s game-tying three-point basket in the closing seconds of regulation, she was the inbounds passer ran towards the basket and cut back behind the line offering a quick catch and shoot.
When Omogrosso fired the shot, VCU’s Tera Reed was trying to catch up and tried to disrupt the shot, which caused for an awkward follow-through after release.
There was a complete silence as Omogrosso fired the shot, but that quickly went away as it appeared Reed got a hand on Omogrosso as she was completing the release and quickly Burt threw his hands up as did the fans looking for the foul.
It seemed to take an eternity for the ball to fall through but once it did, Omogrosso screamed in approval and offered two small jumps, while Richardson and Angela Staffileno were the first to get up from the bench to lead the cheers.
Omogrosso offered a knowing smile, her head down as the sequence was described to her in the press conference, all the while Richardson maintained, that the foul call was missed.
“I still can’t even put it to words,” said Omogrosso. “I just thought it was an and-one because she hit my hand, that’s why I reacted so strongly, I wanted to shoot three free throws, then it went in. Then we should have won on the free throw, but it’s okay, we went into overtime, so that’s all that matters.”
— Duquesne Women's Basketball (@DuqWBB) February 23, 2019
After Omogrosso hit that shot, it became clear that Duquesne believed this game was going to be a win and the gear changed.
“Once Chass made that shot, I thought ‘yeah we’ve got this, this is ours now’,” Lass said. “We’ve played these games for four years, let’s say three years, together, so we know what we are able to do. When anyone hits that big of a shot you are just very confident with everything and trust everyone to do their best.”
DEFENSE AND WALKING TRIPLE DOUBLES
This was a win in which everyone that came into the game had an impact, whether it was Angela Staffileno making four points including a first-quarter buzzer beater or Amanda Kalin having the highest plus/minus on the team at +7, but the impact that Libby Bazelak and Halle Bovell had were extremely crucial to the victory.
Burt stated Saturday that Bazelak has a knack to play and find ways to flirt with triple doubles. In this game, Bazelak scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds, added three assists and also contributed two steals, all while playing 40 minutes, the most of any player.
In a season of ups and downs, Bazelak has been one of the few constants on the team, having started each game while serving as a point guard, taking that pressure of others.
Earlier in the season, a non-conference scouting report stated that Bazelak plays within the offense, but now she has shows more aggression and puts herself in position to make plays. When that gets added with her athleticism, it makes teams who previous underestimated her, have to think twice.
“I will be frank, they see a slight white kid who plays point guard and think they can pressure her,” Burt said. “They don’t realize how athletic she is until you play against her. She has quick hands and north-south is fast with the basketball. She is a walking near triple-double. What more can you ask from your point guard? Libby Bazelak is a really good basketball player.”
As for Bovell, the stats show that she set a career high grabbing nine rebounds but she consistently is able to pass the ball into the post, set her teammates up for success, is the team’s best defender and on a loose ball find a way to come away with possession.
Even though she was 0-for-3 on her shots from the field and 0-for-4 at the free throw line, Burt never hesitated to keep her in the game.
“It tells you the value of everything else she does when she struggles to score,” said Burt. “Her help defense is maybe the best I’ve ever coached in 20-plus years.”
It was no coincidence that Bazelak and Bovell were in the game late. Burt saw a situation in which the team had a loose ball in the lane in the fourth quarter and no one went for it, something which made him quite upset.
He knew something had to change.
In this game, Duquesne and VCU were for the most part evenly matched, meaning the small things would become the difference and misses such as those are daggers.
Sure, Duquesne made some shots to key the comeback and had a little luck with VCU missing some crucial free throws down the stretch, but it was a commitment to do the dirty work down the stretch which helped place the Dukes back in a driver’s seat position.
“We had a loose ball situation in the lane and no one went for it, which made me upset,” Burt said. “If there was a live grenade on the ground, I subbed those kids in and substitute the grenade for a basketball.”
One thing VCU may do better than anyone in the conference is grab offensive rebounds. It is something that is a staple for them and though it beat Duquesne by one in that statistic, three of those were team offensive rebounds and routinely VCU achieves a double digit total in that regard. Additionally, Duquesne held six-foot-six Sofya Pashigoreva to eight rebounds which is a credit to how it was able to box her out and limit second chance opportunities.
“In practice for the last two weeks, we have kept a chart and we run if we have more than three no talks, no box outs or layups given or not made,” said Burt. “We haven’t run a whole lot. We’re not giving anyone an easy bucket, you’re going to earn it from the free throw line. They go to the glass hard, I thought we did a good job there and we identified some things that if we get an opportunity to play them again could benefit us also.”
Duquesne’s next home game is also its last in the regular season and it comes Saturday against St. Bonaventure. It will serve as senior day for four seniors.
Normally Burt is willing to heap praise on his seniors for what they have done in a Duquesne uniform, but that was not the case Saturday as there still is plenty of work to do for a team which currently has a 15-12 overall record.
“Their impact will be measured by us winning games,” Burt said. “Our back is against the wall and we need to win the rest of our games. It will be our to our seniors to lead us to do that. that includes the final two regular season games, the play-in game and the conference tournament. There is no reason why we can’t win this. We want to earn 20 wins which is the standard at Duquesne, we want to get into postseason play, we have to win. There is not an air of desperation, but rather one of enjoyment. Now it is a lot more fun. I think we are going to be a very dangerous team in March and I like our chances.”
THEY SAID IT
“I’m not a shooter but crunch time, I’ve got you. Shooter today.” – Richardson
“I told the team after the Saint Joseph’s win that was probably my most favorite victory of the year, not because we won there but because they listened. They trusted each other and us and there were multiple contributions from everyone. Everyone was genuinely happy for each other with no one worried about minutes or shots. That really has gone away the last eight games. When we’re unselfish and embrace physicality, we are very dangerous.” – Burt