PITTSBURGH — As Duquesne women’s basketball coach Dan Burt departed the PPG Paints Arena podium, director of basketball operations Melissa Franko stood waiting close to the two-step podium, basketball in hand.
Though Burt was not aware until he arrived for his postgame press conference, Duquesne’s 72-62 victory over Rhode Island Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena, the seventh-year head coach had just won his 150th career game.
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By no means did the victory come easy as for the first time this season, Burt yelled at his players at halftime, where Duquesne did not show much defensive urgency and trailed by nine points.
If you had told Burt that Nicole Jorgensen, arguably the most effective post player in the Atlantic 10 would pick up her second foul less than four minutes into the first quarter and Duquesne still nearly trailed by double digits, it probably would have surprised anyone on the Dukes bench.
But that was the situation Duquesne had placed itself in.
It was so secret that the attendance for the game was sparse and no final figure was listed in the box score.
Duquesne has had its challenges not playing in home gyms, but even at LaRoche, one side of the court was routinely filled with fans.
So when Burt projected towards his players, his point was quite clear.
“It’s not a great environment, there’s nothing I can do, I don’t like it either,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll have these situations where you create your own energy.”
According to redshirt senior guard/forward Paige Cannon, it was message received.
“I think we all realized that we did not play a good first half and we came out kind of slow,” said Cannon. “We know we can’t do stuff like that but we knew we had to pick up our energy and play with some aggression. It was a clear difference from first half to second half.”
“WE EXPOSED IT”
Rhode Island entered play ranked second in the Atlantic 10 in defensive field goal percentage at 36.8%, but Duquesne shot at a 54.2% clip in the second half as it was able to create separation.
In the first half, Duquesne struggled getting back in transition, though Rhode Island shooting 50% from the field certainly did not help.
Jorgensen was still hampered by foul trouble and it was clear that Duquesne marked her. They were making sure that if the Rams held on, that it was not be because of Jorgensen. She finished with one point.
“She was a clear focal point for us, Cannon said. “We knew we had to stop her, teams that can’t normally don’t win. Today our fives played very tough defense. We got her in foul trouble and it was overall we played pretty good post defense.”
Burt explained that from a defensive perspective, Duquesne believed Rhode Island does not fare as well offensively when hands are up on defense and the Dukes were much more consistent in that discipline in the second half.
Rhode Island shot 1-of-10 from the field in the third quarter, a clear sign that this adjustment frustrated them.
Meanwhile, Duquesne’s offense was beginning to click again, perhaps boosted by the confidence of getting several defensive stops.
Duquesne was moving the ball around, even calling for it in high-percentage spots. On one sequence, Duquesne rotated the ball around the three-point line and Libby Bazelak made the extra pass to Cannon who was calling for it. When Cannon made the three-point shot, she pumped her fist, understanding that Duquesne was hitting its stride.
“We not only found the open man, but we read their defense,” said Cannon. “We crashed the boards hard, we hadn’t done that consistently. That three I made, it was just seeing the ball go in and we kind of had a feeling that ‘okay we’re going to win, so we need to just keep playing hard’.”
Even when Duquesne did not get a call to go its way, a clear backcourt violation, it did not dwell on the play nor the sequence which followed, that saw Laia Sole pick up her fourth foul. Instead, Duquesne played on and led by freshmen Amaya Hamilton and Precious Johnson, took the lead in the third quarter and then pull away in the closing 10 minutes.
Hamilton found success posting up a guard and then succeeded on a catch-and-shoot play from midrange. Johnson, arguably had her best half as a Duquesne Duke, grabbing rebounds, being a force and just bringing energy.
“There’s no need to sulk when PJ is giving us good minutes and does what she did today,” Cannon said. “It’s gotta be the next person up. It was a clear difference. Clear energy and she knew that the team needed her.”
With three games remaining before the Atlantic 10 Championship commences, Dayton has secured the regular-season title having not dropped a conference game and owning the tiebreaker over VCU. Duquesne stands in sixth place since it lost to Davidson and thus does not own the tiebreaker over the Wildcats.
Seeds three-through-eight all host home games on Tuesday Mar. 3 in campus site games. This is the third year that rule is in effect and in the previous two years, only one road team has been able to win.
In that sense, Duquesne is still in a driver’s seat position being able to control its own destiny. If Duquesne does indeed host a game, it will be at LaRoche University’s Kerr Fitness Center and wins such as Wednesday prove all the more important as the first-round bye which comes to the top-two teams in the regular-season standings is unlikely at this point.
“We needed to win this one, and we need to win the next two,” said Cannon. “At this point we have to think about ourselves and think about what we can do to win and what puts us in the best position to win.”