By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
39 minutes, 58.4 seconds.
That is the exact amount of time in which Duquesne was tied or in front.
That is all the time that the Saint Louis Billikens needed to deliver a 72-71 blow to the jaw upon their opposition, and to advance to the second round of the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship at PPG Paints Arena.
Blame it on whatever you want. Frame it whichever way you wish. It was pure heartbreak for Duquesne.
It was somehow stunning, yet expected, all in one.
With just nine seconds remaining and a one-point advantage, graduate transfer Emile Blackman stepped to the line for a pair of free throws. First one — clank. Second one — not so much.
Back the other way went the Billikens, as they attacked the basket only to come up with a falling-away prayer from freshman Jalen Johnson that ricocheted off the side of the backboard. But just as the Dukes began to breathe a sigh of relief, in came junior Davell Roby. Roby collected the offensive rebound and redirected it off of the backboard and into the basket, much to the approval of the elated Saint Louis sideline.
Following a timeout, a full-court heave to graduate transfer Kale Abrahamson found its intended target, but his shot was the off the mark and Duquesne’s season came to a sudden halt.
An 18-point second half lead was washed away just like that. A fairly solid all-around performance for the Red & Blue ended with tears.
“I don’t think I have really ever been a part of a more devastating loss, especially at the end of the season like what just transpired,” head coach Jim Ferry said. “I thought we did almost everything we needed to do to win the game. We just didn’t win the game.”
On their secondary home court, Duquesne got off to a really hot start as they stormed out to a 23-8 lead. The Dukes were putting it all together from the offense, to the boards, to the defense; it was all clicking for Ferry’s team.
With 6:24 to play in the first half, freshman shooting guard Spencer Littleson downed a pair of free throws to give the Dukes their largest lead at the time (16). Saint Louis closed out the half on an 18-12 run to cut its halftime deficit to 10.
“It’s absolutely amazing that we are not down 25,” SLU head coach Travis Ford told his team at the break. “You’ve earned the right to go win this game. You put yourself back in position.”
Ford’s halftime speech didn’t initially seem to inspire the Billikens all that much, though.
After the break, Duquesne extended its halftime lead to 18 points with 15:20 to play in the game.
Little did the Dukes know, they were about to experience the most grueling 15 minutes and 20 seconds of their season — and that’s saying something for a team that finished with just 10 wins and lost eight games by five points or less.
“We have to learn how to close out games a lot better. Clearly, that has been a theme this year,” sophomore guard Tarin Smith said.
It was the combination of a lot of little things that led to the dismantling of the Red & Blue. The blown lead was due to missed free throws, untimely turnovers, foul trouble and a press defense from Saint Louis that forced them into some low percentage shots.
Meanwhile, Saint Louis took advantage of Duquesne’s foul trouble, as they recognized their distinct advantage in the low post. The Billikens outscored the Dukes in the paint 46-18. Overall though, the numbers for each side were relatively even.
Additionally, SLU did get a nice 21-point lift from its bench, whereas the Dukes got a miniscule three points from their pine. However, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has followed Duquesne this season.
The usual suspects did it all for the Dukes. Atlantic 10 All-Rookie honorees Mike Lewis II and Isiaha Mike combined for 36 points, 9 rebounds and four assists. Also in double-digits were Blackman and Smith who combined for 26 points, 8 boards and six dimes.
The good news for Ferry and Co., assuming he is back next season, is that Lewis, Mike and Smith will all be returning along with big man, Nakye Sanders. With those four returning starters and a solid incoming class, Duquesne is poised to find some relative success in 2017-18.
But in the Jim Ferry era, blown leads and disappointing finishes have told the story. This fan base, which hasn’t sniffed the NCAA tournament since 1977, can’t handle any more of that disappointment. Only time will tell if Ferry can re-write a happier ending to what has been a sorely somber story.