MCCANDLESS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — As the buzzer sounded and Duquesne came back from 17 points down to defeat Rhode Island, freshman forward Chad Baker could finally release the tears he had been struggling to hold back all Wednesday night.
Upon arriving to LaRoche University’s Kerr Fitness Center, Baker found out one of his very good friends at Colonia High School in New Jersey had passed away.
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After the game Baker tried to remember the good times such as when his friend would depart a shift at Chick Fil-A still in uniform and together they would drive to Avenel Park where they play basketball together.
Baker held it together during the game posting a career high 19 points on six-of-seven shooting.
“This whole game I was very emotional like I am right now, it was still in the back of my head,” he said. “I just played this game for him and the rest of the season is going to be for you Chad.”
When Baker arrived for the game Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot told him that it was time to play Wednesday’s game for Chad and from the beginning it was clear that was exactly what would happen.
Baker scored eight of Duquesne’s 14 first points and the freshman who had four made three-point shots all season made five Wednesday night, the most since another freshman in Isiaha Mike made five on Feb. 5, 2017.
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) January 20, 2021
“Previous games I was struggling I wasn’t really back in my grind how I was supposed to be,” said Baker. “Coach D told me to trust the process and keep working every day at it. Thankfully because of him today I had a great shooting day.”
Since Duquesne lost two starter to the transfer portal and Maceo Austin stepped away from game action, Baker has been starting which is an admirable accomplishment for the Dominican-born Baker who came in behind due to COVID-19 and was even accidentally not placed in the official book for a game at George Washington.
“My whole mindset coming here was I didn’t leave my island just to sit on the bench,” Baker said. “I’m going to put in the work, anything I have to do to get on the court. Today I took advantage of my opportunity and my shots kept hitting.”
As Duquesne celebrated Wednesday’s win, Baker immediately burst into tears, comforted by multiple teammates led by Austin. He walked off the court with his arm around a teammate who returned the favor, a powerful image from a game that had many ebbs and flows.
One thing certainly seemed clear after 40 minutes. Chad was watching over Baker Wednesday night.
FORK IN THE ROAD
It had been a while since Dambrot went after his team but down double digits at halftime with a stagnant offense, he decided it was time to visit that place again.
Duquesne had to decided if it was tough or live behind excuses and softness. Simply put, Dambrot challenged the team’s toughness level and it responded.
“I just screamed for 10 minutes,” he said. “I really don’t want to do at 62, that’s dangerous. It’s not good for my health but I didn’t come here to put up the white flag when things get tough and I expect our guys to put up the white flag. We may get our ass beat in but we’re not going to go down without a fight.”
Indeed Duquesne shot 65.2% from the field in the second half while Rhode Island was held to a 33.3% mark which included an 0-for-7 total from three-point range.
For a Duquesne team that struggled to break 50 in these last two weeks, this performance could be just the antidote this offense needed to get going.
“We have very good pieces that can hit up shots,” said Baker. “We’ve been struggling to put the ball in the basket but everyday we go to practice and take extra shots. From now on, we’re going to be going through a good path.”
HUGHES STEPS UP
It is quite possible that Mike Hughes was the most dominant player on the court.
For starters when he picked up two quick fouls halfway through the first half it was clear that the team looked overmatched upon his substitution. Rhode Island controlled the post and with it the game.
When Hughes came back he drew a critical foul on Makhel Mitchell and the roles were reserved, though when Mitchell subbed back in, he not the same.
His rhythm had been taken. Meanwhile Hughes was just hitting his stride.
“Mike Hughes was the best big player on the floor when it mattered tonight,” Dambrot said. “He made some unbelievable blocks and changes at the rim which changed the game.”
Moving forward, Hughes will have to keep improving if Duquesne wants to get better.
— Duquesne Basketball (@DuqMBB) January 21, 2021
“I think the one thing he’s done a better job of is keeping his composure better,” said Dambrot. “He’s taken on more of a leadership role since the changes to our team which has really helped us. He’s done a better job of getting in the gym. If he gets in the gym and gets his reps, he’s going to play well.”