Dukes come back, capture crucial victory behind Baker’s 19

Adam Lindner | Sports Editor

Jan. 21, 2021

Keith Dambrot, now in his fourth year on The Bluff, entered this season with high expectations and a wealth of talent on his roster. Tabbed to finish fifth in a crowded Atlantic 10, Dambrot’s Dukes seemed poised to reach heights not seen at Duquesne for decades.

Six conference games later, his team was reeling.

Following the departures of two starting guards (Sincere Carry and Lamar Norman Jr.), plus the absence of a third in Maceo Austin — who stepped away from the team for a brief period of time for personal reasons — Duquesne’s identity was in flux, leaving Dambrot in a precarious position. The Dukes, once imagined to be among the A-10’s premier contenders, were suddenly 2-4 in conference play, without 60% of their original starting lineup and struggling to put the ball in the basket.

That didn’t change when Duquesne took the court on Wednesday night, in search of its first victory since Jan. 9 and — probably more importantly — a galvanizing effort against a quality team to hang its hat on. Since the departures of Carry and Norman — who both announced their intentions to transfer elsewhere — on Jan. 5 and Jan. 9, respectively, the Dukes have struggled offensively as Dambrot has searched for new rotations. The team managed only one win in its three contests since Carry’s exit, beating lowly Fordham before falling to Dayton and St. Bonaventure.

On Wednesday evening, as Duquesne played host to Rhode Island at its makeshift La Roche University home, it appeared as if more of the same was in store for the Dukes. Well, for the first 20 minutes, at least.

Rhode Island, boasting wins over two A-10 top dogs in St. Bonaventure and VCU, led by as many as 17 in the game’s first half en route to a commanding halftime advantage. The Rams’ Makhel Mitchell dominated the offensive boards while Duquesne’s Mike Hughes sat on the bench with early foul trouble, and the Dukes struggled to score, at one point enduring a 1-for-14 shooting stretch.

Dambrot’s Duquesne teams have made a habit of roaring back in the second half of games to steal victories — the Dukes’ 71-69 triumph on Wednesday night marked the 14th time a Dambrot-led Duquesne team came back from a double-digit deficit to win — but it had yet to be done this season. Until it was.

Hughes re-emerged from the bench to add 11 second-half points and freshman Chad Baker turned in a career-best performance, propelling Duquesne to a quality — and immensely important — win.

Baker — who shot 5-for-5 from 3-point range en route to a 19-point, five-assist, three-steal performance — appeared to be emotional during timeouts, wiping his eyes with a towel at times. After the final buzzer, Baker broke into tears as he returned to the sideline, where he was embraced by teammates.

In his post-game presser, Baker told reporters that one of his high school friends — also named Chad — died on Wednesday. Dambrot said Baker received the news just as the team was arriving at La Roche for the game.

“This whole game, I was very emotional,” Baker said. “That was just going through my head, and [I] just played this game for him. The rest of the season’s going to be for you, Chad.”

“That’s where relationships become important,” Dambrot said. “I said, ‘Look, man, you gotta play this game for your friend now. There’s nothing you can do other than play it in honor of him.’ [Baker] played well. He’s capable.”

Baker was more than capable on Wednesday, serving as Duquesne’s only source of offense for large portions of time. He delivered a memorable performance, emphatically staking claim to his newfound spot in the starting lineup.

It gave Duquesne, in desperate need of something — anything — positive, a glimpse of hope. Hey, maybe we’ll be alright. Maybe we can still compete. Maybe we can do this.

It resulted in a win that could potentially salvage Duquesne’s wayward season.

“We aren’t dead yet,” Dambrot said following the win. “Not yet.”