Kevin Gorman: Close isn't enough for Duquesne
When Duquesne lost back-to-back A-10 games last week, Mike Lewis II experienced flashbacks.
It wasn't just the losing but the way the Dukes went down. They lost to Richmond by four in overtime and at now-No. 22 Rhode Island on a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Lewis has no intention of continuing that trend, which is why the sophomore guard warned his teammates prior to Wednesday's game at George Washington that it's a must-win for the Dukes.
"Going into this game, I talked to my team and said, 'We can't lose three straight,' " Lewis said. "We need to try to win the rest of our A-10 games because this season could turn around and go from good to bad quickly, you know?"
Oh, Duquesne knows.
The Dukes lost 10 games by single digits last season, five by three points or fewer, including their final four games by a combined eight. Lewis has no intention of repeating that scenario.
Nor does Keith Dambrot.
"A lot of our losses were on the defensive end. We'd go down and make a shot, and they'd come back and get a wide-open shot," Lewis said. "That's what coach is always harping on: To win games, we have to play defense. We're starting to understand that as a team."
Dambrot, Duquesne's first-year coach, goes on the offensive to talk about his team's defense. He touts that the Dukes lead the A-10 in effective 3-point field-goal percentage defense (35.9), which is the lowest in school history. Duquesne also is allowing only 66.3 points a game and has held 13 teams to 70 points or fewer and three to 50 or fewer.
"If you play great defense, you have a much better chance to win close games. If you take good shots and play as a team, you have a much better chance to win close games," Dambrot said.
"Are you gonna win 'em all? Listen, you've got to get a break or two. You can't allow negative thoughts to creep into your head. You've got to believe you're going to win. We've won enough now — and we've lost a couple — so they know they can win some."
But the Dukes have their deficiencies, mostly on offense. They lead the A-10 in rebounding, rebounding margin and blocked shots. But they struggle offensively, so Dambrot knows it's more of a psychological battle to teach his team how to win while helping his players forget how to lose.
It's why the Dukes took Joe Carr, a sports psychologist who has worked with college teams and NBA players like LeBron James, on their trip to St. Louis earlier this season.
And why Dambrot tells his players every day to put on their raincoats.
"The raincoat knocks the water off of you. It knocks the last play or the last game off," Dambrot said, likening it to a closer blowing a save snowballing in baseball. "You have to have a short memory. You can sit there and dwell on it, but I think that's the worst thing you can do. I have to stay positive."
Dambrot built Duquesne's confidence by scheduling some of the softest nonconference opponents he could find. When the Dukes lost three in a row, they answered by winning their next seven and 10 of 11.
So after losing to Richmond and Rhode Island, Lewis reminded his teammates that their downward spiral started with a 65-63 defeat last January at George Washington, the second loss in a string of seven straight.
Lewis recalled how the Dukes "splintered as a team" because of the losing, with players doing their own thing instead of heeding former coach Jim Ferry's instructions.
That got Ferry fired and Dambrot hired.
"We just have to remind ourselves that we corrected ourselves once already," Lewis said. "We just have to do it again. If the game is close, you just need to focus. If you're tired, there's no need to be tired. You can rest in 30 seconds, when the game is over.
"It's time to understand how much focus you need to win those games."
When his five transfers sitting out this season started beating the starters in practice — and, worse, chirping about it — Dambrot split the squads' practice times.
The Dukes are 14-8 overall, 5-4 in the A-10, and Stanford Robinson's lone 3-pointer of the season away from a road victory over nationally ranked Rhode Island.
Now that Dambrot has taught his Dukes how to win, here comes the real challenge: teaching them how not to lose the close games, especially as the season wears on.
"The thing that concerns me the most is not so much whether we believe we can win — because I believe they think they can win now. They've played with everybody — (but) our mental fatigue and our physical fatigue," Dambrot said. "Because these guys haven't been in those situations, and they haven't played the amount of minutes they've played. Can we grind through and not fatigue mentally and physically?
Lewis and the Dukes need a shorter memory to forget all of those close losses from last season and stop the flashbacks from all of those heartbreaking single-digit defeats.
Or a longer raincoat.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
Note: This column was updated to correct Duquesne's overall record this season.