Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor
Duquesne beat Cleveland State University 79-77, to begin its season with a victory, albeit on a razor’s edge.
Neither team had a lead of more than five points, the lead changed hands 13 times and the game came down to the very last shot. The intensity and chaos enveloped everyone in the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse on Monday night. Almost.
“You want my opening statement? That’s pretty much exactly how I thought it would go,” said Duquesne Head Coach Keith Dambrot in his postgame press conference. Dambrot is entering his seventh season with the program, and his 26th as a college head coach.
“We’re going to have a good team, but we’re a work in progress. We don’t know who to play,” he said. “We’re just looking around trying to figure it all out.”
Dambrot’s idea of predictable chaos climaxed in the final two minutes, when Dae Dae Grant tied the game at 72 with three free throws.
Each side traded missed 3-pointers before Cleveland State’s Drew Lowder’s free throws gave the Vikings their final lead of the game. On the ensuing possession, Duquesne’s Fousseyni Drame hit a 3-pointer from right in front of Duquesne’s bench, sending the arena into a frenzy.
However, the game wasn’t done teasing its 2,364 fans. Duquesne missed a pair of free throws, Lowder hit a 3-pointer, and CSU’s Tae Williams got the ball in his hands with seven seconds left. Williams had shot 8-of-14 on the night for 21 points. However, his jump shot at the buzzer fell short, and Kareem Rozier jumped on the rebound to secure Duquesne’s third consecutive season-opening victory.
Drame’s shot was one of many good moments for him and his twin brother, Hassan. Fousseyni finished 4-of-5 for 10 points, and Hassan scored 11 on 4-of-6 shooting. Grant singled them out as some of the newcomers he most enjoyed sharing the court with.
“I really like their tenacity to have a knack at going for the basketball, going for the rebound. Every single time,” he said,
“Any lineup with the twins,” Jimmy Clark said. “That’s probably the two people that stood out to me.”
However, the twins were only some of the big men that Dambrot deployed. He was open about his staff needing time to toy around with their lineup to figure out what combinations worked well. That happened early and often in the four and five spots. Andrei Savrasov and Halil Barre started but were subbed out for Fousseyni and Tre Williams three minutes in. Later in the half, Dambrot tried a bigger lineup, having the 6-foot-7 Hassan make his Duquesne debut in exchange for the 5-foot-9 Rozier.
“That definitely helps us defensively,” Clark said. “I feel like it would have been shown more tonight if we would have stayed solid on a couple more defensive plays.”
Before the end of the first half, Dambrot had also introduced Jakub Necas and David Dixon to the frontcourt. While having so many players 6-foot-7 and up may seem like a luxury, it requires patience to find the combos that work best. However, that was present everywhere in the lineup. Twelve players saw playing time on Monday. That doesn’t even include Matúš Hronský, who played in 19 games a year ago, injured grad transfer Dusan Mahorcic or freshman guard Kailon Nichols, who Dambrot lamented not putting in the game.
“I told our guys we’re going to have to ride a different horse every night,” Dambrot said.
The game began at a frantic pace, with both teams on-pace to score over 90 points after 10 minutes. Both squads cooled off from the field, before picking up for another scoring burst before the half. The Dukes wound up trailing 41-38 at the break. At that point, Lowder and Williams had combined for 28 of the Vikings’ points. No other player had more than four.
The teams paced each other throughout the second half, before Duquesne entered a scoring drought that lasted for over three minutes. In fact, during a 7:32 stretch in the second half, Duquesne’s only points were scored by Grant. Dambrot attributed that to circumstance moreso than a harbinger, while Grant was confident in his ability to lead the team’s production through dry spells.
“I try to live for those moments,” he said. “I know that if I work on my game very much, and more than many others, that my results will show.”
Second in scoring for the Dukes was Clark, who finished with 16 points and three steals. Joining them in the backcourt was Rozier, who was lauded by his teammates and coaches despite scoring just four points in 30 minutes of action. He made a series of hustle plays toward the end of the game and made the defensive stop on Lowder at the buzzer.
“’Reem’s got the heart of a freakin’ lion,” Grant said.
“Leadership-wise, Kareem’s the best I’ve ever had,” Dambrot said. “He’s better than he played tonight.”
Among the areas where Dambrot will seek improvement is from the charity stripe. Duquesne missed a pair of free throws in the final minute that could have put the game away. The team finished just 18-of-33 from the line, far short of the 68.8% clip the team finished with last season.
“I just think it was a little bit jittery,” he said. “I told them, ‘From now on you get a hundred (free throws) before you leave every night.’”
Finally, Dambrot celebrated the crowd’s energy. After the go-ahead basket, an older man took off his shirt to hype up the student section.
“If you don’t have a good home court advantage, you lose games at home. The students really helped us,” Dambrot said. “You have to earn that; you have to win in order to get people in the stands. And it has to be fun. I do think we have good athletes so at least it’s fun to watch. It might not always be pretty, but it’s fun to watch.”
The Dukes return to the court on Friday, when they take on the College of Charleston in Annapolis, Md.
“We’re gonna get a lot better,” Dambrot said. “Our effort certainly was good enough; we just have to play better. Which I’m sure we will.”