Caught up with Duquesne coach Jim Ferry and seniors Ovie Soko and Jerry Jones on the phone when the team landed in Pittsburgh early Friday afternoon. Here are those transcripts.
What was the team's reaction when they got back to the locker room?
"We almost beat them at our place, so we knew if we played the right way and continued to defend them that we'd have a chance to win it in the last five minutes. It's a credit to our kids that they were able to come back after those two tough losses we just had. It showed their mental toughness and how much they cared about each other. It was another game we had like 19 assists on 24 baskets. We played unselfishly. It's a credit to them. It was an opportunity, and they seized it. You know what? I've been saying this all along: as fans, everybody is looking at the wins and losses. And obviously it's disappointing when we don't win those close games. But for me as a coach — I know some people think it's a cliché, but it's not — we've been getting better. Every game we're playing, I'm watching and seeing that we're getting better. I just kept saying that we have to keep heading in the right direction."
I'd imagine you have some mixed emotions about this: It was a historic win against a top-10 team — first road win vs. top-10 team since 1962 — but on the flip side of the same coin, they wouldn't be top-10 if you had beaten them last month.
"[laugh] Maybe, who knows. We never really look at it that way. Fifty-some years ago, I wasn't even born. So, I don't look at that stuff. I look at it more as where we're trying to take this program. When we got here last year, this program was at rock bottom. The seniors and upperclassmen leaders graduated. The point guard transferred. There weren't many players here. So with our first few recruiting classes we're trying to establish some things, and the league is tough. it's not something that's real easy to do. For us to come up with a win like this really helps our program."
How much confidence does this statement win give a young team moving forward?
"It's something you can definitely build on. It's in two phases: One, it's the immediate phase with this specific team and where we're at right now, and hopefully instills some confidence that we can build on this now and get better from this point. We proved that we can beat a great team like that on the road, and now we've got other great teams in this league. It's not like you can sit back and enjoy it. You've got to get ready for UMass now. Hopefully for these kids it instills everything we've talked about and everything we do. Now that they're really, totally bought in, they understand how it can play out, and we build from this point on. The other side of it is for the future of this program. To be able to in Year Two, with our first recruiting class, to beat a top-10 program hopefully shows where our program has a potential to get to. It helps build on the recruiting side of things, people take notice, people realize what we're doing and how we're doing it. It takes a little patience, like I've always said, to do it the right way. And I know the Dukes fans don't want to hear that all the time, but it's true. It's reality. If you want to be a team that can sustain winning at a high level, you've got wins like this to help it move forward, but you've got to continue to do it the right way. Hopefully this helps with the change of the culture, helps with our campus and our city buying into us, and helps with recruiting. Those are the main things it has to do."
From my vantage point, the most impressive thing about this win is what came before it, a terrible second-half collapse against Dayton. How do you turn around after two heartbreakers and again put 70+ points on one of the top defenses in the country.
"I go back to the resiliency of this group, the character of this group, and the mental toughness of this group. That's something that we've been building since we put this team together; day by day by day we talk about that stuff, and it really showed last night. A lot of other teams that would have lost two close games like that would have lacked confidence and put their heads down. But we didn't. I can say this: I thought we had really good practices after the loss to Dayton. You can tell these guys really care about each other. I think that showed by the way we were able to step up last night after two really close losses that were devastating at points. You know what I mean?"
Ovie Soko was your third-leading scorer, which shows balanced scoring you didn't have against Dayton. Is that they key to unlocking the Saint Louis defense?
"Whenever we have balanced scoring, we're difficult to beat. We've been lacking that wing scoring, which gives us a third or fourth scorer. To have it be Jerry Jones be that stepped up is great — he's a senior who has taken a role to come off the bench for us this year. When you have a big upset like that, whether it's the NCAA tournament, championship games, big games, it's normally that fourth person that nobody is expecting that steps up and has a great game that can help you get over the top. That's true. It played out exactly that way, and it was Jerry that stepped up and was fantastic. He played with great confidence, and it wasn't just his scoring. He did a fantastic job defensively on Jordair Jett as well. I'm really happy for Jerry, and again, it shows that message that we all need each other to win. We're a team, and that's what we've built on since the days these guys got here. It was a total team win, and I'm really proud of these guys."
No game until Wednesday, but hardly an easy one back home against Massachusetts.
"We're playing another top-25 team; they got as high as, what, 10th in the country this year? We've got to be smart. We're trying to use this time right now to get better but also stay fresh. We're going to be off today. We're going to lift weights tomorrow. I'm going to fly back into town tomorrow morning after recruiting. Quick, aggressive practice, then watch the WPIAL games, and then we'll figure out what we're going to do Sunday heading into the week. We've got to make sure we're fresh down the stretch run now."
Well, how was the celebration after this one?
"Everyone was excited. Everyone was just happy we were able to get the win, but it was something we knew we had the ability to win."
"When I got back to the [hotel] room, I told L.G. [Gill], 'If we had to choose a time, I'm happy we got them when they were No. 10 instead of 19.' Obviously, we would rather have beat them both times, but it's better to get them now than never. We were just really excited to pull it out."
Only one other team has been able to score 70-plus points in regulation against Saint Louis. Does your offense just have their number?
"To be honest, Saint Louis is a great team. They're a really, really good team. We just came out and played hard. I don't necessarily think it's anything about us having their specific number, but we just went out and played hard and played to the game play, and this one went in our favor. I think that just shows that anyone can really beat anyone in our conference."
How does your team come off a 4 of 27 second-half shooting performance against Dayton to do this?
"I credit our freshmen and sophomores. Me being an older guy, these are my last games so I'm going to play every game like it's my last. But for the freshmen and sophomores and even juniors on the team — everyone besides myself and Jerry — to stay poised and stay hungry and go to an environment like that and play the way they did, I take my hat off to them. I don't think I was at that same place when I was that age. I don't think I had that mental toughness. These guys really showed great character going into an environment like that and coming off such a heartbreaking loss."
If you told most people that Ovie Soko was the third-leading scorer in a game, they'd think you scored five points and Duquesne lost by 20.
"[laugh] Oh man, hey, if that's what it takes to win, I wish we would have found that out earlier in the season. It's different every night for us because we have so many guys [that can score]. The ball will find the shot, and I think we shared the ball really well last night, and it found good shots for us. That's just the type of dynamic our team has, I feel."
Have to feel good for Jerry, a senior, to come out and drop 19.
"Everyone on our team knew what Jerry was capable of. He brings us a great spark off the bench, and he's one of the most unselfish players we have. Being a senior, to come in and play with great intensity and energy. It's hard when you're not starting as a senior, but he doesn't let that affect him when he comes in. He gives us everything he has."
What does it mean for you two seniors to get this win you can hang your Duquesne hat?
"Oh man, I just thanked everyone yesterday, all my teammates. I can't say enough about how proud I am of all our guys. They could have easily just packed up and said, 'OK, we'll go in here and play hard,' but no, man, those guys really believed we could win. I just thank those guys. And, obviously, I thank all the fan for the support. But I have to thank each and every one of my teammates for giving it their all."
"Just proud and excited for all the hard work we put in so far knowing we lost a couple close games before this one. When we played them the first time, we only lost by a couple points. And last night we made winning plays, that was the difference in why we came out on top in this game. We were just relieved that all our hard work and scouting paid off. ... It's all about just sticking together and sticking to the coaches' game plan, really. We knew what we could do. We just had to get in the gym and shoot some extra shots so the ball would fall in the late second half — and it did for us in the Saint Louis game."
You've taken a pretty selfless role coming off the bench this year — 8 of 10 shooting last night, what got into you?
"I just wanted to be a part of a big win. I knew we could beat them, and they were ranked real high, too, so I just wanted to be a part of it. My teammates were depending on me, and me being a senior and us not having much experience as a young team, I just wanted to come off the bench, give energy and do my part. I got in a little zone last night, and shots fell. It was all good from there."
What does it mean to get such a statement win in one of your last games here as a senior?
"It was a big turnaround, especially playing with Ovie, who is a great guy, and all these young guys that look up to me even though I come off the bench. It was a great feeling to be in that position at that time."
What kind of momentum can you take from this game?
"Oh, it helps a lot. It's a big momentum shift as well. Even though we were losing, Coach was telling us in practice how we're still getting better even though we're still losing close games. That's what we were going to need going into the playoffs. Obviously, it showed last night how could we can be, beating the best team in our league and No. 10 in the country. That just shows how we can play night in and night out. We have to do that once the playoffs come."
It's been a long road for you, through the coaching change and all. What does this win mean for the program, considering the trajectory you've seen the last four years?
"It's a lot. It's great for the program. In the past Duquesne hasn't really beaten ranked teams like that, especially that high, so it's great momentum heading into next year, for the guys looking to come to Duquesne in recruitment and stuff like that. And it's big for the city as well. I'm just happy I could be a part of it in my last couple games here. Hopefully we can win some more big games as we go along."