Upset of Saint Louis a large step forward for Jim Ferry's Dukes

Written by Stephen J. Nesbitt on .


The truly remarkable thing about Duquesne's 71-64 road victory against No. 10 Saint Louis Wednesday night was what came before.

Four days earlier, Ovie Soko and Jerry Jones were slumped in their chairs in the recesses of CONSOL Energy Center answering question after question about their singularly depressing senior day.

Prior to the game, the Dukes' lone seniors had stood at mid-court with athletic director Greg Amodio and head coach Jim Ferry and were given framed jerseys to commemorate their rocky Duquesne careers.

It wasn't even their last home game — that's coming up Wednesday at Palumbo Center — but when you're Duquesne, a program trying to regain traction in the college basketball world, you've got to capitalize when people are watching, and for this regional rivalry matchup against Dayton they were watching.

Soko was as explosive as he had been all season, scoring 26 points on 9 of 13 shooting, and Duquesne built a 14-point halftime advantage over the red-hot Flyers. And then the Dukes completely combusted. They shot 14 percent (4 of 27) in the second half. Still, they had a chance to tie in the last 20 seconds, but Soko missed a free throw, and Dayton escaped with a 57-54 win.

"I had a chance to bring our team back level, and I didn't do what seniors are supposed to do," Soko said afterward, dejected. "Those guys [Dayton] made plays, and I didn't."

But, let's be perfectly honest here, Soko had taken the blame all season — and, if you're taking 21 percent of the team's shots, you often deserve some of it — and in no way was this defeat on him. He had scored nearly as many buckets (9) as the rest of his team (10).

When Ferry walked in later and quipped, "It's basketball — you have to score. This isn't soccer," he wasn't talking to Soko. This was senior day, though, and so Soko took the blame again.

The questions came in ...

Did you feel like the team would be better than it is at this point — at least winning more games?

Jones: "Yeah, definitely. Our record doesn't show who we are. We lost a lot of tough and close games, but there are a lot of good guys in that locker room. I know we're better than our record says we are."

Soko: "I don't think our record at all reflects the talent we have. Sometimes we show our age, I think that's been huge this year. Jerry's a young senior. I'm really the only older guy on the team. At times our youth shows, and it'll hurt you in a league like this, in close games down the stretch. There are just plays that seniors make on every team."

This wasn't the way you probably wanted to go out ...

Jones: "It's a bittersweet feeling. I'm going to miss playing with these guys."

Soko: "I haven't been here four years, but I don't regret coming to Duquesne, not one bit. I love everyone here. My teammates have been amazing all year, and the fans are great at Duquesne. It's a program I think is going to be really, really, really good.

"It's a shame I ended on this note, but I'm appreciative for the chance to come play here."

In four days, Ferry went from "I really don't have an answer" to having all the right answers against the Billikens. Four days for Soko to go from "It's a shame I ended on this note" to scoring one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season.

Saint Louis, winners of 19 games in a row, felled by lowly Duquesne. It's the sort of win that makes national headlines, makes the front page of ESPN and Sports Illustrated and USA Today, makes people go "Ohhhh so that's how you say 'Duquesne?' "

DUQUESNE STUNS NO. 10 SAINT LOUIS read most every headline.

If you followed the team this year, though, it wasn't actually all that stunning that the Dukes hung with Saint Louis. That they actually won, though? Yes, surprising.

Because the Billikens had been escape artists all season, winning nine of its first 12 Atlantic 10 games by an average of four points and going to overtime twice. And because Duquesne had done the exact opposite, coming close often but never quite finishing — well, they did once, but only because of a miracle buzzer-beater against St. Bonaventure.

Four days after shooting 14 percent in the second half against Dayton, Duquesne shot 53 percent against what Ferry reckons is the best defense in the country. The Dukes shot 50 percent the first time they met Saint Louis, too, and was one of two teams to score 70-plus points in regulation against the Billikens.

This time, sophomore guard Micah Mason scored 22 points on 4 of 5 3-point shooting — his nation-leading 3-point percentage has now risen to a ludicrous 56.6 percent. And Jones added a season-high 19 points off the bench on 8 of 10 shooting.

Oddly enough, Soko had only 12 points and was the third-leading scorer. Or maybe that's just a good blueprint to beating a great defense — spreading out the scoring?

Soko laughed at that question: "Oh man, hey, if that's what it takes to win, I wish we would have found that out earlier in the season."

That it was Jones who made the difference this time felt appropriate. He had played an unselfish role off the bench all season, playing good defense and filling in admirably on the wing.

"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," Ferry said. "That's true. It played out exactly that way, and it was Jerry that stepped up and was fantastic."

Jones is the lone player on the roster that was at Duquesne through the coaching change, an up and down and then very down tenure on the Bluff. He didn't end on Dayton, he got to follow with the program's biggest win in ages.

I'm just happy I could be a part of it in my last couple games here," Jones said. "Hopefully we can win some more big games as we go along."

The question every coach is asked after scoring an upset of this magnitude is: What can a win like this do for your program?

And, for Duquesne, well, it can and should do wonders.

Ferry broke it down into two "phases," as he called them.

"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. ...

"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."

This win is a building block, and it's a big one.

From my first day covering the Dukes last fall, fans and friends of the program quickly filled me in. Duquesne doesn't like it, but they've slipped down the city pecking order far behind Pitt and, gasp, perhaps even Robert Morris. It's a fan base that most describe as stuck in the 1970s and couldn't decide whether they were willing to back this new coach through a couple frustrating (embarrassing?) seasons.

And Ferry said from the outset that it wasn't going to be pretty in a hurry. He said it would be another trying year — the Dukes went 8-22 in his debut season. He certainly never promised an Atlantic 10 title in Year Two. He wasn't born when Duquesne last beat a top-10 team on the road (No. 6 Bradley in 1962), and he was probably too young to even notice Duquesne in its glory days.

So he isn't trying to resurrect a childhood fantasy of what he remembered Duquesne to be. He's trying to rebuild a once-proud program the way he knows how, the way he did at LIU-Brooklyn, to compete in today's top-heavy college basketball landscape. This win was his staff's first statement win — and that can go a long way in the rebuilding process.

"When we got here last year, this program was at rock bottom. The seniors and upperclassmen leaders graduated," he said. "The point guard transferred [T.J. McConnell to Arizona]. 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."

Whether or not fans can see past the lopsided records to the pieces on the court, Ferry has already pulled some impressive players to Duquesne. Soko came to the Bluff because of Ferry's system, which would allow him to expand his game, use his versatility and strength. And, man, that was actually a pretty darn selfless move — he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he'd never sniff the NCAA tournament in his first, last and only season playing at Duquesne. But he believed in Ferry and the system and the program's gradual upward trajectory.

After the Saint Louis game, Soko thanked his teammates for not folding the tent after back-to-back last-minute losses to St. Bonaventure and Dayton.

"These are my last games, so I'm going to play every game like it's my last," Soko said. "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."

That's the sign of a program that hasn't become complacent, that hasn't resigned to life in the Atlantic 10 cellar.

And Ferry got Mason, too, perhaps the least-heralded standout of the college basketball season. You might say Mason had no choice but to come back home from Drake, and that's basically true, and that Duquesne was really his only option. It wasn't, though, and if you hear the way he speaks of Ferry andthe Duquesne program, you'd understand why he ended up here.

Ferry lets his players play to their strengths, Mason told me earlier this year, and while that takes a while to figure out, that's how his offense will eventually among the most potent and effective in college basketball.

Right now, two guys know their offensive strengths: Mason and Soko. That number will grow.

Ferry has said again and again that he's committed to building the Duquesne program the right way. That comes with very little instant gratification, of course. It means you're going to dump almost your entire roster after one season and start from scratch. It means you're going to lose games. But, with a little patience, it means you'll have a strong foundation to build a program — not just a single team — on.

And, from this reporter's courtside perspective, Duquesne is headed in the right direction. A win against top-10 Saint Louis doesn't answer all your questions, but it sure helps validate this staff's efforts.

"It takes a little patience, like I've always said, to do it the right way," Ferry said. "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."

Stephen J. Nesbitt: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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