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Sports

Duquesne basketball team raises bar after superb start

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, 7:27 p.m.
Duquesne's Mike Lewis II leads the team with 16.2 points per game.
Dave DeNoma | Duquesne athletics
Duquesne's Mike Lewis II leads the team with 16.2 points per game.
Duquesne is 4-1 and tied with Davidson for second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference under first-year coach Keith Dambrot.
Dave DeNoma | Duquesne Athletics
Duquesne is 4-1 and tied with Davidson for second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference under first-year coach Keith Dambrot.
Duquesne has won three more games (13) than it did last season, and there is 13 games remaining in the regular season.
Dave DeNoma | Duquesne Athletics
Duquesne has won three more games (13) than it did last season, and there is 13 games remaining in the regular season.
Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot: “If you have fragility in your belief, that’s one of hardest things to fix.'
Dave DeNoma | Duquesne Athletics
Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot: “If you have fragility in your belief, that’s one of hardest things to fix.'

Keith Dambrot is too busy to do the math and too focused to look behind him, but it's no secret Duquesne basketball usually ends up near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings.

Since 2005-06, the Dukes have averaged a 10th-place finish in the 14-team league.

Still, when it was casually mentioned before the season that Dambrot, Duquesne's first-year coach, might be able to lift the Dukes into the middle of the standings in a season or two, that sounded reasonable.

But now Dambrot said middle-of-the-pack is no longer acceptable this season. Entering their game Wednesday night at Saint Louis (8-10, 1-4), the Dukes (13-5, 4-1) are tied for second place with Davidson, one game behind A-10 leader Rhode Island.

“We have to strive to be at the top of mountain, not in the middle, not in the valley,” he said. “Nothing else is really satisfactory.”

Call Duquesne the victim of its success, but what else could be expected when the team surpasses its 2016-17 victory total by three with 13 games remaining in the regular season? Expectations are rising, and for good reason.

When Duquesne opened its conference schedule 3-0 by beating Dayton, George Washington and Fordham, it marked only the third time the Dukes had reached that mark in 41 A-10 seasons.

Dambrot's team believes in itself, and he'll tell you that's more than half the battle.

“If you have fragility in your belief, that's one of hardest things to fix,” he said.

An example of that belief is sophomore guard Mike Lewis II, who leads the team in scoring (16.2 points per game) and 3-pointers (56).

Lewis wasn't happy when former coach Jim Ferry was fired, but he was mature enough to listen to the new coach. He bought into what Dambrot is selling and helped to keep the bulk of the team together.

“That was one of my biggest things,” Lewis said. “I'm not coming back just to be in the middle of the pack. We understand if you put in the hard work and go out every night and play like it's your last game, we can put ourselves in position to win games.”

Dambrot, who can be a realist and an optimist at the same time, said the team learned a valuable lesson Saturday when it needed triple overtime to defeat La Salle, 101-94. The game had 33 lead changes and 15 ties.

“The lesson is you have to play the game to the final seconds or you can lose,” he said. “I told this team it would be in between 12 and 14 close games this season.”

So far, Duquesne is nearly on that pace, recording a 4-2 record in games decided by eight or fewer points.

The victory was important, but it wasn't especially revealing to Dambrot for a couple of reasons.

The Dukes are 11th in the A-10 in free-throw shooting (69.2 percent), and he said a poor performance in that area kept them from possibly winning in regulation.

Procuring victory in the tense atmosphere of three overtimes was a test of character, but Dambrot already had what he calls “a good feel” for his team.

“They care about winning, and they care about each other,” he said.

And playing the role of underdog doesn't bother them.

“Before the season, coaches go through and they circle the games they think they can win,” Dambrot said, “and I'm sure most of them had Duquesne circled.

“We want to play with that chip on our shoulder, make sure when the game's on the line, (opponents) get a little tighter because they don't want to lose to Duquesne.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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