MOON, PA — Losers of its last two games, Duquesne had not played true to form since a Dec. 14 contest against Radford and coach Keith Dambrot knew the practices leading up to Thursday’s game against Saint Louis would be critical.
Dambrot lit into his team and admitted that practice was the hardest it has been in a long time as the team focused into the physical test Saint Louis provides.
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Duquesne’s returners understood that a year ago, Saint Louis came into the Palumbo Center and won the rebounding battle by a 54-31 mark and if that result were to happen again that the end result may not be a positive one. Not to mention Saint Louis earned its spot in the NCAA Tournament last season winning the Atlantic 10 Championship to do so.
So whether it was four-on-four, one-on-one or winning duels, Duquesne dug in and paid attention to detail, after all, Atlantic 10 play was around the corner and as far as most are concerned, it is a fresh start, something the Dukes took to heart.
“You could tell they wanted to be coached,” Dambrot said. “They didn’t like (losing) either.”
It was not pretty at times, but a 73-59 victory Thursday night at the UPMC Events Center against a Saint Louis team Tavian Dunn-Martin stated was the most physical opponent to date this season is an important step.
Duquesne overcame a poor start once again but did not need to be the comeback kids for long as it earned a halftime lead before Michael Hughes matched his career high with seven blocks which changed the nature of the game.
With Hughes proving to be such a force inside the paint, Saint Louis had difficulties scoring around the rim and the combination of not being able to finish and having to make long runs in transition proved differences in the contest.
As far as the rebounding battle went, Saint Louis did win the statistic by a 39-36 margin, which is a definite improvement for Duquesne and certainly a reason why it never trailed in the second half.
“The biggest emphasis coming into the game was to box out and rebound with those guys,” redshirt junior forward Marcus Weathers said. “Every guy was going to try and come in and grab a rebound.”
Weathers took the message to heart leading his team in scoring for a fifth consecutive game, scoring only a career-high 26 points, which also represents the most by a Duquesne player this season.
“He is a better athlete than a year ago and more explosive,” said Dambrot. “We’ve done a really good job of getting him the ball down in there. They decided to play small and if you don’t have a center or big, strong forward on him, he’s difficult.”
Though Dambrot admitted he had to settle down after the loss to Marshall, Duquesne played as he would put it as “front-runners” protecting the lead.
“I’m proud of my guys,” he said. “I feel like we really showed some resiliency after playing mediocre basketball. I couldn’t put my finger around it other than we have been in Pittsburgh for so long. We just lost our juice. We worked really hard for three days, harder than we’ve worked in a long time. We just wanted to get back to being a hard-working team.”
Duquesne shot 65% from the field in the second half as it was able to start the stanza wrong and finished in style when Weathers received an alley-oop from Dunn-Martin.
As Saint Louis coach Travis Ford remarked to his bench following the dunk, Weathers was all smiles as the clock hit all zeroes, encouraging the 1,478 in attendance to make noise.
“I told them with the game on the line in the second half, for them to shoot 65% is not how you respond in a close game,” Ford said to St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat reporter Stu Durando. “I thought it was the worst we’ve played all year, even Seton Hall. We went on too many blank runs offensively. We put too much pressure on ourselves.”
A LINEUP CHANGE
Part of that post-game press conference following Sunday’s setback to Marshall was Dambrot teasing a potential lineup change.
This was certainly worth noting as the starting five had not changed all which of course also plays a factor when it comes to practices, especially in Duquesne’s case where the Power Center has one court.
The change came with Dambrot inserting Lamar Norman Jr into the starting five in place of Dunn-Martin.
“I didn’t like what I saw and I knew he could player freer and easier on the bench,” Dambrot said. “When guys make sacrifices for the good of the team, generally something good happens. He can fling them up and I thought he played good defense. When Lamar started last year, I thought he did a good job, it was just time to make the move.”
Dunn-Martin entered Thursday’s game averaging nine points a game, but Dambrot specifically seemed to challenge him on the defensive end.
It is worth noting that when Dambrot was asked about a starting lineup at Atlantic 10 Media Day, he often placed both Dunn-Martin and Norman into sentences together stating both could score the ball but echoing his remark about needed defensive improvement.
When Dambrot departed Akron to take Duquesne’s then-vacant head-coaching position, Dunn-Martin was one of two players to also leave with his coach, a clear sign of respect and understanding between the pair.
Last season Dunn-Martin was named Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year for being able to generate instant offense off the bench and if there were any questions for how the redshirt junior guard was going to respond, the answers proved almost instantaneous.
Dunn-Martin scored 21 points and made five three-point shots, including one which answered a Saint Louis run which cut the Billiken deficit to two points that helped put the game out of reach.
“(Dambrot and I) talked about it earlier this week and that it would probably be better for me,” said Dunn-Martin. “I feel like that’s what I am going to do.”
Saint Louis had several shortcomings, but none may have been more apparent than the free throw shooting, where the Billikens went 7-for-18.
Duquesne not only gained 13 points on Saint Louis at the free throw line, but also shot at an 80% clip. The free throw line has won Duquesne games on multiple occasions this year and it certainly proved a key factor again.
Saint Louis shot six free throws in the first half and four of them were taken by Hasahn French, who is an Atlantic 10 All-Conference type of player but struggles at the line. This season, French entered play a 34.4% free throw shooter and in his previous two seasons also did not eclipse 40%.
Duquesne meanwhile had four players shoot free throws and just one shot below 70%. That player, Hughes, made both of his free throws. It is clear that there is a certain amount of pride in free throw shooting that plain and simple was not there a season ago.
“I’ve had a lot of bad free-throw shooting teams, not as bad as Saint Louis, but I’ve had some bad ones,” Dambrot said. “People ask ‘don’t they practice’. Everybody practices but a lot of it is mental and a lot of it is physical. We’re making more free throws and we’re putting time in but so far we have a good free-throw shooting team and the right guys are getting fouled.”
CARRY PLAYS PIVOTAL ROLE
Duquesne knew that Saint Louis returned two players regarded among the best in the Atlantic 10.
French was already mentioned and he never really got into a grove. He only took one shot in the first half, which was well off the mark and ended up with eight points, four of which came at the free throw line.
The other was Jordan Goodwin who came into this game a walking double-double of sort accomplishing the feat in seven of his last eight games.
Ford likes having French and/or Goodwin on the floor at all times and both picking up two fouls in the first half appeared to leave the Billikens flustered towards the end of the first half when Duquesne took the lead, ultimately for good.
Sincere Carry had the tough assignment of guarding Goodwin and passed the test.
“Sin is a leader by example,” Weathers said. “He goes out there and plays extremely hard. It is not about numbers it is about how he can help the team out.”
Goodwin scored a team high 14 points but shot 6-of-15 from the field and one of those points was from the free throw line.
“I thought he did a good job,” said Dambrot. “He scored some but was inefficient and a lot of them were off of ball screens and not really Sin’s deal either. I thought Sin was dead on his feet and still competed. I tried giving him a break but we went haywire so I had to bring him right back. He made some plays when it mattered.”
Carry’s effort led him to earn a +17, the best plus/minus rate of any player on the evening. In 34:57 of court time, also a game high, he scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and totaled eight assists.
HE SAID IT
“You don’t ever want to lose, the fragility of this sport is crazy. It is like a closer that blows a save. He might’ve had 15 straight and then blows one and psychologically blows the next one. Pretty soon it snowballs. It’s the same thing. You never want to go two, three, four games in a row, it is hard to rally people. When you win so many in a row you can get prosperity drunk and forget how you got there. I don’t think we were prosperity drunk, I think we just lost our edge. We were a little tired, messed up in the head, we just lost it for a couple or so games.” – Dambrot
“It was about getting back on track from what we were doing when we were winning. As a collective group I feel like we shied away a little in practice and Coach Dambrot wanted to hone in and get back to the basics of what gave us our 10-game winning streak.” – Weathers