Historic season ends in emotional farewells

Dylan Fister | Staff Photographer | Senior Fousseyni Drame graduates from the Dukes after a historic year for the team. It’s unknown where he and his twin, Hassan, will go next year, but if the last five years are any indication, they’ll go there together.

Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor

This article was updated April 4, 12:18 a.m.

OMAHA, NE — The result was no longer in question, and the majority of neutral fans had left the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. Duquesne’s run was going to end in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament, but its fans were still on their feet cheering as loud as when the game began. When the final buzzer sounded, every single member of the Dukes’ team walked over to applaud their traveling support. They weren’t cheering the game, rather celebrating the season and the team that put them on that court in the first place.

The emotions flowed, because the end of the season means Duquesne has to say goodbye to seven seniors, as well as retiring Head Coach Keith Dambrot.

After that farewell, the team retreated to the locker room to be addressed by their leader, before he made the rounds shaking everyone’s hand. Some wiped tears from their eyes, as much about the loss as the jerseys that were being worn for the final time.

“That’s what hurts more,” team captain Kareem Rozier said about the seniors. “Knowing that I won’t be seeing them in a locker room no more.”

Tre Williams was the longest tenured of the group. He’s one of just two remaining players from Duquesne’s 6-24 team that finished in last place of the Atlantic-10 Conference, and one of only four not to leave the program that offseason. He explained that decision back in December.

“I found my home with Coach D and his staff,” he said. “I love my guys here. I can’t turn my back on them.”

His season ended in the A-10 quarterfinals with an injury, but he remained ever-present on the sidelines. After Duquesne’s upset victory over BYU in the Round of 64, the team picked him to place the ceremonial “Duquesne” placard into the next round of the bracket.

“Tre Williams has become one of my best friends,” Rozier said. “He had one job my dad gave him, which was to take care of me when I came in as a 17-year-old freshman, and he’s done that.”

Williams was as emotional as anybody after the game. Headphones resting on his head, eyes welling with tears, he sat in silence, aimlessly staring into the last college locker room he will ever set foot in.

“He’s helped build me into a man,” Rozier said. “I’m very blessed and happy to call him a big brother.”

“I definitely took a huge role in being a leader on this team because the guys trust me,” Williams said back in December. “These guys definitely look up to me and I’m just trying to help them as much as possible.”

“He’s just a nice person, so everybody gravitates toward him,” Dambrot said. “I don’t know if Tre has a mean bone in his body.”

Freshman Jake DiMichele agreed that Tre and the seniors were mentors as well as teammates.

“I’m eternally grateful for those guys,” he said. “They helped me out a lot personally, always giving me advice and making sure I was good.”

Four graduate transfers only spent one year at Duquesne, but their legacy is forever enshrined in their roles in Duquesne’s first appearance in March Madness since 1977. That includes Andrei Savrasov, whose minutes waned over the course of the season until he was rarely making it off the bench in March.

“The way I’ll describe them is sacrifice,” DiMichele said. “Every single one of those guys sacrificed something for the better of the team. Whether it be Tre sacrificing literally his body, or Andrei sacrificing playing time even though he wasn’t happy.”

Dusan Mahorcic had to fight as hard as anyone just to say goodbye. A severe knee injury forced him to miss the first several months of the season, and he admits he still isn’t close to 100% physically now. Nevertheless, nobody saw more upside in the moment.

“There’s not that many people that came back from this injury and were able to play within a year,” he said. “So, I’m proud of myself for how much I accomplished.”

When sophomore Dave Dixon finally spoke after wiping away tears and hugging everyone, media included, he laughed at the fact that Mahorcic had planted a kiss on his face when they embraced after the game.

Hassan and Fousseyni Drame were laughing together, as they had all season. While the former had his minutes limited by injury, Fousseyni became a hero in Duquesne’s win over BYU. It’s unknown where they’ll go next year, but if the last five years are any indication, they’ll go there together.

Finally, the two most prolific players from the senior class returned from the locker room from their media availability. Dae Dae Grant and Jimmy Clark III combined to form an elite backcourt tandem over the last two years, earning All-Conference honors in Brooklyn last week. They worked well together, on and off the court.

“Me and Jimmy’s duo is going to go a long way,” Grant said. “He’s going to be my brother forever. We have so many similarities and so many things we are alike.”

“I have to say the same,” Clark said. “We talk about this sport a lot; we talk about life a lot.”

Dambrot singled out Grant as someone who helped shift the culture in the program right up until the end of the Illinois game. He says that Grant came up to him in the final minutes to make sure that every player on the roster got in the game.

“These guys do anything for anybody,” Dambrot said. “He didn’t say put me back in. He said make sure this guy gets in and he gets in. That tells you a lot about what kind of person he is. All of them are like that. They’re just great guys.”

Their legacies will outlive all the milestones they reached in Cooper Fieldhouse this season. DiMichele and Rozier spent this year learning behind the duo before they step up to take control next winter.

“Being able to play behind such great guards,” Rozier said, “I feel like I’m built for anything now in my next two years.”

Finally, all they could say was thank you.

“It’s a blessing to just be able to go out with those other seniors on this note as well,” Grant said. “We went out on a note that we’re still champions, and nobody can take that from us.”

“I was just thankful to be around a bunch of guys that never quit,” Dambrot said. “Just to see the brotherhood really grow.”

That was the synopsis of his final postgame speech in the locker room.

“He was proud of us,” Rozier said. “[He told us] to hold our heads high, and that this will be legendary. We will remember this for the rest of our lives. We’ll go down as a family. We’ll go down as champions.”

When asked about their coach, every player talked not about his basketball knowledge, his analytics or even the game. They talked about Dambrot, the man.

“I will remember him more as somebody who helped me in the daily things in life than on the basketball court,” Mahorcic said.

Grant said he finally got the most out of his coach after a conversation early in the season when he asked to be pushed more by the staff.

“I think after that time, Coach was starting to coach me harder, our relationship just grew, and I just became much more appreciative to have him as a coach,” he said. “To be under his wing, learn more, whether it’s off-the-court or on-the-court things to make me a better man.”

Stemming from the second chance at coaching he got at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, Dambrot was always keen to give somebody a look when nobody else would — whether that was Clark, who got kicked out of VCU, or DiMichele, who was fully prepared to play Division-II ball before Dambrot came calling.

“I’ll always remember him for just taking a chance on me,” DiMichele said. “He put me in line to do something that a lot of other coaches wouldn’t have had the moxie or gall to do.”

Dambrot’s care off the court is what made him so successful on it. His staff, including successor Dru Joyce III, almost all played for him and have hardly worked for anyone else. He only came to Duquesne because he felt an obligation to revive the once-proud basketball program his father starred in 70 years ago.

“Having a coach out there that has that faith in you, it just makes playing the game so much easier,” DiMichele said, “because I know the guy on my sideline has got my back no matter what.”

“I remember the only person to give me an opportunity,” Rozier said. “I love that man to death. I’d do anything for him.”

He was certainly fighting his emotions, but Dambrot said he was smiling in the locker room after the game after seeing a massive crowd that included former assistant coaches, players and, most importantly, his family.

“We were laughing in the locker room, that when we first got there, we couldn’t get 10 people to come to the game,” he said. “Look at all the people that came out for this.

“I know my dad will be pleased about that, wherever he is right now.”

One by one, the players put on their jumpsuits and began to file out of the locker room.

It might have been then that the gravity of the moment struck. Players tore their March Madness nameplates from above their lockers, then looked around for any other keepsakes to remind them of the greatest week of their lives. Posters, stickers, banners — anything with a March Madness logo was yanked down and stuffed into duffel bags bound for Pittsburgh. Since Tuesday, March 12, the players had spent just one night in their own beds.

“It’s just now sinking in for real, what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” Rozier said. “While we were winning stuff we were just living in the moment. And this moment has come to an end. But man, I’ve been trying to take it all in.”