Prior to the Duquesne women’s basketball team starting practices, redshirt senior guard/forward Paige Cannon brought her team in to explain what was ahead for the upcoming season.
Cannon is one of two players remaining from the 2015-16 team which made the program’s first-and-only NCAA Tournament appearance, but also was present when last season’s Duquesne team saw its season abruptly end in the Atlantic 10 Championship, on its own home court, so she has experienced both success and disappointment.
“As a team we need to come together and try to figure it out,” she said. “We need to want to be here and want to play for each other. If we do that then I think we can have a ton of success this year. Everyone seemed really excited and was ready for the season to start. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder and we all feel like we have something to prove. That is exciting, to have feelings like that.”
Assessing this season’s team gone are four seniors who received conference recognition which coach Dan Burt admits leaves a lot of unknowns, though he believes this uncertainty is a good thing.
“It is a rebirth of our program in a sense,” said Burt. “We graduated so much experience and shots and minutes that we’re relying on a lot of people that frankly don’t have experience. We’re going to be scrimmaging every day so we as coaches can find out what our strengths are in real five-on-five scrimmage basketball as opposed to drilling. We are a less talented, less skilled team but we are a longer, more athletic team and we’ll have to be a better defensive and rebounding team.”
To get to where Duquesne currently is, it is appropriate to turn back and reflect on what went wrong a season ago.
At an early preseason practice, Burt echoed a sentiment he made through the 2018-19 campaign, shouldering the blame for not properly managing both players and staff alike.
Though Duquesne finished 8-2 in the last 10 games and rallied to close out the regular season, the 19 wins overall ended a streak of 10 seasons with 20 or more wins and lost out on a chance to extend the campaign in the WNIT.
“I made the mistake of making our schedule too challenging,” Burt said. “The head coach got too cocky. If we maybe substitute the TCU/Texas road trip for two more games that are much more winnable, all of a sudden, now you are 21-9 but you’re also 2-0 to start your season and maybe things are different in a couple of those others games. We did not have that momentum until the end of the year.”
Indeed Burt believed Duquesne would gain experience against TCU and Texas and at least a 1-1 record, but instead had to quickly search for answers which took a while to come.
Burt believes Duquesne has taken the necessary lessons from last season and since May have worked to refine repeatable systems that were not up to expectations.
One thing the returning players will keep is the 76-34 Atlantic 10 Championship semifinal loss to Fordham which effectively ended Duquesne’s season.
There certainly is a fine line to approaching that result, but for team leaders such as Cannon, there is more to it.
“I think as a team we need to move on but for me it makes me really mad,” she said. “It makes me want to push everyone and myself to make us better. As much as I want to, I can’t forget about it so it drives a lot of us returners. We don’t to have a repeat of something like that this year and we’re playing a lot better because of it.”
TURNING THE PAGE
This year’s Duquesne team is an interesting case.
Coming into last season, everything was mostly cut and dry, Duquesne had a lot of its answers in terms of who is starting with the only significant change being Libby Bazelak coming on and earning a starting spot.
That certainly is not the case this year as there is a lot of unknown with those players who either redshirted or were unable to get as many minutes as desired.
Now there is a competitive battle, not just for the team to get into form, but for minutes which are very wide open.
“The competitive atmosphere so far has been so much harder than it was last year and it drives every single player to work harder which is what we need,” Bazelak said.
Speaking of his roster, Burt expressed a love for the group he currently has. He believes this team is committed to each other and the overall success, not to mention there have been no issues this season, something which cannot be said about the 2018-19 squad.
“They’ve been a real joy to coach and I am really excited about the direction they are going,” said Burt. “We’re going to fall down and skin our knee, that’s going to happen with a young group like this.”
This is a sentiment Bazelak agrees with.
“I think everyone is willing to sacrifice for the team this year which is a really good feeling,” the junior stated.
From an individual standpoint, Halle Bovell found her way into the starting lineup around the time Duquesne went on its strong finish and has added a daily off-court rehab workout to her routine. This shows Burt how important basketball is to her and sets an example that teammates have worked to follow.
In addition to Cannon’s leadership, Bazelak and a returning Nina Aho have stepped in to fill those roles left from the departing seniors.
Aho has shown ability when healthy and received important minutes during that time. Now healthy again, the coaching staff will be counting on her to be a key piece to this team.
In her time at Duquesne, Bazelak has led more by example but she has improved to be more of a vocal presence.
“We needed more of a vocal leader last year and I think I’ve taken that and tried to use it this year,” she said. “I am trying to be more of a leader vocally. I’m not one to speak, it’s uncomfortable, but now I think being here in the summer and getting used to it definitely has helped.”
Additionally, Amanda Kalin, Laia Sole and Angela Staffileno are among those returning this season.
Duquesne also is expecting contributions from its freshmen, namely Amaya Hamilton and Precious Johnson.
At six-foot-two, Hamilton brings size to the guard position and possesses true athleticism and skill, with a maturity Burt states is “beyond her years”. As Bazelak puts it, “you can tell she played on a good high school team.”
Johnson has been working on her offense as she played more of a defender/rebounder role when playing for the Swedish National Team. As she works on this, Johnson is expected to score more.
In addition, assistant coach Cherie Lea has been tasked with working on a Duquesne defense which will need to improve in order for overall success. She has found her voice and the team appears to be responding.
Burt admits that last season Duquesne was predictable in spots but still had enough talent to win games. This year, with so many now pieces and refinements, there is a lot more unknown which should keep teams honest.
Come November, Burt does believes there will be plenty of learning experiences, not just with combinations, but just from a confidence standpoint. Now, this group having confidence will be more important than ever.
“We have some individuals that have had very successful careers already leading up to this but maybe not at Duquesne,” said Burt. “It’s their turn to make their mark and establish their own identity.”