Pittsburgh, PA — The men’s basketball version of the City Game has often had a big brother versus little brother feel and Friday night, big brother won once again.
Big brother certainly did toy with his younger sibling as the Duquesne men’s basketball team cut what was an 11-point deficit to two with 12:55 remaining in regulation, but Pitt just had an answer for just about everything.
This explained how Pitt came away with a 76-64 victory Friday night at PPG Paints Arena in front of 10,118 fans, by far the largest turnout for a Duquesne game this season.
“I don’t think we’re going to be all the way there for three weeks,” Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot said. “We have to try to win games we are capable of winning in the interim and then build some momentum so we can win some games like this. This was a winnable game, Pitt played well in spurts but they had moments were they weren’t great either. We knew that was going to happen but then we made mistakes that didn’t allow us to win the game. Simple as that.”
Pitt senior Ryan Luther’s local ties surrounding the City Game and the consideration of Duquesne in his recruiting process, and he will leave this rivalry trophy in hand after offering several high fives, pictures and autographs before leaving the court.
“Ryan Luther, specifically in the first half, set the tone and he honestly played like the best player on the court which in my biased opinion he was,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “That was what led us to getting some comfort and space between our score and theirs.”
Duquesne’s (2-3) Mike Lewis II led all scorers with 20 points and Eric Williams Jr matched a career-high with 18 points. Sophomore Kellon Taylor matched a career-high with eight points and set a career-high of eight rebounds. Luther led Pitt (4-4) with 16 points and nine rebounds.
“We needed to win this game especially after last year,” said Stallings. “Winning is a relief, losing is a misery and unfortunately those two emotions are not equal, the misery is a lot worse than the winning. I didn’t want to come in and be the stooge to lose the first two. Golly.”
Working on mentality
Dambrot has told media and by extension fans, that a lot of the second half struggles this season has been due to players being “gassed” and that being short-handed has led to individuals biting off more than they can chew.
That was not why Duquesne lost Friday night.
“I think our effort was pretty good all night actually,” Mike Lewis II said. “We just made a lot of mental mistakes. As far as being tired I think guys really pushed through tonight and competed.”
Graduate student Chas Brown saw his first action of the season returning from a stress fracture in his foot. He was on a minutes count limited to eight but played five, in addition to starting the game. Eric James returned from a knee injury and also played five minutes and Tarin Smith’s injury from the Cornell loss looked far worse than it actually was as he played 23 minutes.
Monday night, it was likely assumed by some around the program that at least one of not three would be unable to play Friday and each of the trio provided important minutes that kept the team fresh in the second half, which led to a run almost resulting in a lead.
Duquesne’s offense still went cold and a crucial four minute scoreless drought allowed Pitt to regain control of the contest.
Never did Duquesne appear tired but rather looks were not falling and Pitt had enough answers to pull away.
“I think it helps but we still have attention breakdowns in the huddle,” Williams Jr said referencing the additional depth. “We can’t keep having mental breakdowns, we need the bodies but we also need to be mentally there as a team. Practice is the first thing. We know we have to get in there and do things right and go 100%. You see in the games sometimes we have mental breakdowns and that’s because we don’t do it in practice sometimes we need to learn from that.”
There were several times when the paint was wide open on cutting action plays, whether it was a missed assignment or if more was involved to that.
In practice, teams often go over what is viewed during the scouting process. Duquesne had plays scouted in practice but that did not translate enough Friday.
“Even though we went over it a thousand times in practice, we gave up some plays we knew they were going to run. That’s just mental, we call the play out when they are doing it, we just need to be there,” said Williams Jr.
Let’s be honest, this was as meaningless of a City Game as you will find. Dambrot himself admitted that Duke-North Carolina was very much safe.
Never once on the court did this game ever really resemble a rivalry as games in the past did. This is because both teams are nowhere close to finished products. Since this is a Duquesne centered recap, the focus will be on them here.
Yes this is a rivalry, but it will be more so as Pitt tries to improve and Duquesne’s several redshirts at the end of its bench get the opportunity to play, not to mention the height coming in with incoming recruits who have already committed.
Dambrot believes Duquesne will be good and I believe it, though it is rather clear that may not be the case this season. In the next year or two, Duquesne’s height play be an important factor and getting the ball into the post will not be a tough task in any way.
At the moment, Duquesne is still the little brother, but something tells me that will not last much longer, perhaps even as soon as next year.
This Duquesne team has and will continue to take its bumps, but that is not a reason to be discouraged at all. Fans need to be patient with this team, those who have waited 40 years should not have a problem waiting another season, maybe two but the question is whether the younger audience can remain engaged.
Duquesne’s student section was sold out for this game, but whether that commitment remains is on the students themselves. That answer was a clear no last season. Student section leaders have tried through several different means to attract students and the first couple or so games were definitely successful. At this point, students are preparing for finals, but come Jan. 10 when classes resume, this Duquesne team will need all of the support it can get.
Duquesne needs to hope this game in some respects resembles the season. First by the amount of fans and several on campus teams supporting led by the entire women’s basketball team, which was stationed next to the student section. The start of the game references the beginning of this overhaul, which indicates struggle yet a drive to improve. For the rest of the game, Duquesne refused to give up and even during some lower times, it will be important for the Dukes to play their hearts out.
From an individual standpoint, Eric Willliams Jr played with tremendous intensity in the second half. I have been tougher on him on social media than just about anyone else, but the way he crashed the boards to rebound and finished plays, specifically in the second half was fantastic. He was fouled several times on follow-up attempts but still was able to score. I was asked during and after the game by Pitt fans about him and they were shocked to find out he was a freshman. Also it was good to see Nicholas Kratholm put the ball in the basket. His playing time has come and gone, but he made two 3-point shots during Duquesne’s second half run and that may have been the most excited the bench got all game.
Lastly to clear an elephant in the room, Duquesne’s non-conference scheduling remains as smart as can be. It never was about this season, though the framework will be set, so road games will be tough but this is a season about more than just wins and losses. This team needs to grow together and trust in each other when things are not ideal. This in a sense is a struggle but also helps bring back fans that maybe were not there in the past few years or so. This team is easy to root for and is full of people with the same end goal, though how to get there is a work in progress. In the meantime, Duquesne will continue to try to find success with a series of games at the Palumbo Center.
Duquesne will host UMES Monday night at 7 p.m. UMES is 2-5 with a contest Saturday afternoon with American. The Eastern Shore Hawks have faced Atlantic 10 opponent St. Bonaventure this season and fell 96-48. UMES is 0-4 on the road this season and average 59 points per game while surrendering 82.9 a game.