BROOKLYN — When Duquesne men’s basketball redshirt sophomore center Michael Hughes picked up his third foul with 4:12 remaining in the first half of an Atlantic 10 Championship Second Round contest against Saint Joseph’s, an already thin Dukes post had to play smaller and with less margin for error.
Saint Joseph’s had been down by 10 points earlier in the half, but after that whistle, outscored Duquesne by a 13-8 margin and never looked back.
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“They got out in transition on us a couple times, but the main thing that we wanted to do is just stay together and stay positive throughout the run,” redshirt sophomore forward Marcus Weathers said. “That’s the one thing that Coach was telling us. He was telling us the whole game that we had to win it on the defensive end.”
Duquesne went on to lose the contest by a 92-86 score Thursday evening and dropped to 19-13 with the defeat.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said. “They have been playing better. They are healthier. They are difficult to guard because they can spread out, and you know, we just had a hard time, every time we got close, we made a defensive mistake which hurt us.”
Duquesne’s 92 points conceded were the second most in the Dambrot era and may be the most eye-catching statistic given the coach’s affinity for defense. The most came when La Salle scored 94 last season, but that output came in three overtimes.
“Every time we made a run we messed up a switch, they made shots,” he said. “They are a dangerous offensive team because they can spread out and drive you, and they have got good individual players, and you know, now that they are all healthy, you know, they become difficult. We didn’t do enough to win.”
Dambrot realizes the team’s margin for error is low, it is why 14 of the team’s 18 regular season conference games were decided by single digits.
“Until we’re one of the top two or three defensive teams in this league, we’re not going to win the Championship, and certainly, we were one of the two or three worst defensive teams tonight,” said Dambrot. “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be more mature. We’ve got to be more even-keeled. I know exactly what we have to do. We have to continue to hold them to high standards and hold them accountable, but we made progress, but not fast enough for me.”
NORMAN MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Dambrot made one change to Thursday’s starting lineup which was inserting freshman guard Lamar Norman Jr and removing Frankie Hughes.
It was a move which appeared to confuse many on press row and a couple of teams within arm’s reach in scouting positions along press row expressed surprise and questioned Dambrot’s decision.
Normally by the end of the season, the starting five are set in stone and established, but as Dambrot stated Saturday, Norman had been faring well recently in both games and practice situations, so he opted to ride the hot hand.
Norman was a big part of Duquesne’s opening run and scored 13 of Duquesne’s first 25 points, finishing with 18 points for the game, two shy of his career high.
Saint Joseph’s was focusing its efforts on bottling Michael Hughes and forcing him into tough decisions with the basketball, but quickly saw that Norman may be a freshman, but was unafraid of the moment.
“They (Duquesne) were rhythm shooting,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “I mean, that young man came in shooting 31 percent, freshman on this stage. Had 13 points in the first six or seven minutes. The kid, Norman.”
The move seemed to pay off and fired the team up in crucial spots, even if the ultimate final result was a losing one.
“Lamar Norman, bided his time, worked hard every day and it paid dividends at the end of the year,” Dambrot said.
PUTTING A BOW ON THINGS
As Dambrot spoke to the two reporters who stayed for the postgame press conference, he confirmed that despite having won 19 games on the season, that Thursday’s setback would end its season.
Duquesne certainly would be considered to play in the CBI, which was certainly a possibility since it did this three seasons ago and the tournament is run by the same organization which heads the Gotham Classic which the Dukes were participants in during this year’s non-conference campaign.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I kind of am I high-expectation guy,” he said. “So until Duquesne plays in the NIT or NCAA, I’m not really all-in on that.”
When Dambrot made this statement it did not come from a place of sadness because there absolutely was an opportunity to continue a season in which Duquesne exceeded outside expectations, though likely not its own.
Still it was a season in which Duquesne could see that Dambrot’s vision was working. Fans started coming to the Palumbo Center and not because major sports were not on the schedule that particular day.
The fact that Duquesne’s Palumbo Center is not in playing condition as the court was already taken down and placed inside the campus’s Power Center certainly was a detractor for tournaments such as those previously mentioned which looks for teams that are willing to both host and pay to do so.
It also is tough to schedule these games in the eleventh hour with the Penguins season in high gear, plus coordinate that while paying the $35-40,000 cost just to open the PPG Paints Arena doors.
This is something which will happen next season, but in a season where Duquesne has just one senior in Zach Snyder who happens to be a walk on, there is not enough pull for the team to play in “lesser” postseason contests. The team that got into the CBI three seasons ago had a core group of seniors and it was viewed as a reward for Derrick Colter and Micah Mason, who had accomplished but challenging careers at Duquesne.
Another detracting factor were the injuries which were piling up. Both Amari Kelly and Austin Rotroff suffered season-ending injuries and it is unknown when either will be able to play basketball next season. Meanwhile Sincere Carry and Michael Hughes each had injuries which kept them out of action at various points.
Duquesne cannot afford to lose another piece to injury and even with Kellon Taylor playing in the last two games, the positives do not outweigh the risks. It is clear this Duquesne team has chemistry although the injuries prohibited it playing its best basketball at the end of the season because the depth just was not there.
Reflecting in Thursday’s post-game press conference, Norman does have high expectations for Duquesne next season.
“The future of the program, I think will be really good,” Norman commented. “All we need to do is stick together, every stay positive and have a level head, and we’ll have a very good year next year.”
Although the way Duquesne lost was a disappointing one, the team battled until the end and are starting to turn heads. Now it comes down to building upon this in the summer.
“I think our deal’s going to be pretty simple in the off-season,” said Dambrot. “We’ll make no excuses. We’ll go to work every single day. We’ll quit talking.”
HE SAID IT
“I think that was the difference in the game, is their maturity level versus our maturity level. They handled the ebbs and flows better than we did. So ultimately, that’s me and Coach Martelli, right? He did a better job keeping his team more mentally mature than I did keeping my team more mentally mature. It came down to runs, spurts; runs, spurts; and they made them and we got a little flustered and put two bad plays together in a row and they didn’t when it mattered, and that’s typically what happens in games.” – Dambrot
Photo credit: Mitchell Leff/Atlantic 10 Conference