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ALAN ROBINSON: Welcome to Pittsburgh, Home of the Stealers
Damian Saunders broke the DU career record for steals with this theft against George Mason on Dec. 22.
 
Damian Saunders broke the DU career record for steals with this theft against George Mason on Dec. 22.
 

Jan. 31, 2011

Alan Robinson, who spent the past 28 years covering Pittsburgh sports for The Associated Press, will be contributing to GoDuquesne.com for the remainder of the basketball season. Look for his columns here every Monday and Thursday.

By Alan Robinson
GoDuquesne.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers play in the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons on Sunday. You can see the Pittsburgh Stealers twice before then. Just might want to protect those valuables if you do.

These Stealers don't wear the familiar uniform numbers of 7, 86 or 43. Instead, these thieves of the night - and, at least on this past Sunday, the daytime, too - are No. 20 (T.J. McConnell), No. 25 (Damian Saunders), No. 30 (Bill Clark) plus a cast of conniving cohorts. No basketball in an opponent's hands is safe when they're in the vicinity, no passing lane is totally guarded, no lead is totally secure.

If there is anything certain about the surprising Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball race to this point, it's this: The Duquesne Dukes are experts in the art of the steal.

The Dukes (15-5, 7-0 in A-10) again displayed their gift for theft when they had 10 steals - four each by Saunders and Clark - during a convincing 82-64 victory over Dayton on Sunday. For the fourth consecutive game, the Dukes had at least 10 steals while creating the kind of havoc-raising confusion that can rattle an opponent and turn a game in a flash.

A game like this one.

With the Dukes leading 37-36 late in the first half, Saunders and McConnell each stole the ball during Dayton's last two possessions. Saunders scored to make it 39-36; McConnell's layup off a last-second theft was a millisecond short of counting. The damage was done and the Dukes took advantage of a rattled and suddenly unsteady opponent to start the second half with a 19-8 run that, with the addition of a 6-0 run to end the second half, turned a 36-33 deficit into a 58-44 lead.

 

 

Dayton wasn't in the game again, especially after the 6-foot-7 Saunders - whose size belies a gifted defender who is just as capable of open-court thievery as a point guard - stole the ball and scored twice around a pair of 3-pointers by Bill Clark.

"They're the masters (of the steal)," said Clark, pointing to Saunders and McConnell.

Yes, these truly are the Pittsburgh Stealers.

Saunders finished with 19 points during a stat sheet-stuffing effort in which he made 8 of 12 shots while also having eight rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. (Think how fans of a Top 10 team would be gushing, "First-team All-American!" after such a performance.)

"Damian is one of those guys who, when you call on him to do certain things, he does them," Everhart said. "He had to pass the ball because we knew who was guarding him, so he had five assists. They have him for eight rebounds, and I guarantee you he kept the ball alive on the glass to give us five more as a team. He changes ends as well as anybody in college basketball, I think. All I can say is he wasn't the Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 last year for nothing. I thought he just changed the game defensively. He did a great job of getting to the ball."

Clark contributed 17 points and McConnell and B.J. Monteiro had 15 points each. Monteiro, again displaying the new-found consistency that has elevated his game, has scored 13 points or more in four consecutive games.

The Dukes' ability to turn an opponent's possession into their own with the flick of a wrist or a careless bounce of the basketball has repeatedly altered games during the school's longest winning streak since a 15-game run exactly 40 years ago. They went 9-0 in January, a month marked by a fast-maturing team's realization that a team-is-everything mentality, an unswerving commitment to playing defense and a top-to-bottom-of-the-roster unselfishness can produce magical results.

Two NBA scouts, Leo Papile of the Boston Celtics and Bob Zuffelato of the Toronto Raptors, told coach Ron Everhart how refreshing it was to watch a team play with such determination, lack of ego and commitment to team ball. Each said it was like watching one of the great teams of a bygone age, before ESPN SportsCenter and other such shows helped foster a me-first mentality and a deterioration of fundamentals by creating the perception that dunks are the only plays worthy of highlights.

Also remarkable to them is that Duquesne is buying into such a concept with a backcourt consisting of two true freshmen, McConnell and Mike Talley, which is almost unheard-of in upper-level major college basketball.

All basketball coaches talk about the necessity of playing within the framework of team basketball. When five players with often-contrasting agendas are on the floor together, such a concept can break down in a hurry. Not with these Dukes, who appear to be demanding such responsibility internally.

"It's interesting to see with us how passing the ball, maybe even guarding the ball, is starting to get real contagious," Everhart said. "From my perspective, it's a nice feeling to have because those are the things you talk about every day - guarding and rebounding, passing the ball, sharing it, making that extra pass. When that happens, guys feel better about what's going on out there and closer as teammates. They know they can depend on each other and trust each other more, and I saw a lot of that."

He sees a lot of it on the stats sheet, too. The Dukes had 17 steals each against La Salle and Houston Baptist, 16 against Charlotte, 14 against Saint Joseph's, 13 against Bowling Green, 12 against Northwestern State, 11 against Fordham. They are second nationally with 10.2 steals per game (Oregon State is first at 10.3), No. 1 in turnovers per game differential (6.9), No. 1 in steals per game differential (4.8). They're also No. 1 nationally in assists per game (19.1; Pitt is second at 18.8).

So how does all of the havoc happen? Surely, this larceny is more than luck. And it didn't begin this season; Saunders had 89 steals a season ago, leaving him only two shy of becoming the first player taller than 6-6 to lead the nation.

This season, T.J. McConnell - the freshman guard who doesn't play like one - leads the team with 58 steals. Barely halfway into his first college season, he's showing off Aaron Jackson-like qualities with his ability to alter a game not only with his outside shooting, but his penetration, defense and court awareness. During A-10 play, he has 34 assists and only three turnovers.

"For a freshman to show the ability to control the offensive end, whether it's (setting) a ball screen, making an extra pass or (being) competent enough to come off a stagger screen and make a 3, that's pretty impressive.," Everhart said. "He has been a guy who's very dependable."

Saunders, forced to stay inside more because of the Dukes' lack of size, has 45 steals. Clark has 32.

What are the tricks of the thievery trade? Let's ask the Stealers themselves.

T.J. McConnell: "I think we just read the people's eyes, we know where the passes are going because they're looking right at them and then we just get in the passing lanes and just steal it. I mean, they're looking right at them. I think Damian does the same thing."

Damian Saunders: ""I mean, basically, like T.J. says, we can read the eyes. Some guys think that if a bigger guy's on them, they can go for a basic crossover (pass). Once I read a basic crossover, I just try to get my hand in there before the ball does. If it's there I get the steal, if not I try to get the block from behind. That's basically pretty much it."

Clark, at 6-5, also is uncommonly skilled at the art, especially for a player his size.

"Watching them is pretty good," said Clark, who's not reluctant to, ahem, steal a few tricks from his teammates. "I feel like it's all about timing. You have to have great timing when it comes to steals or blocking shots. These two are some of the best players I've ever seen that do it. I think they really take pride in doing that and they've been very successful in doing that."

How successful? With a 15-5 record, Duquesne is off to its best 20-game start since going 16-4 in 1971-72. The Dukes are 7-0 in the Atlantic 10; their best previous start was 3-0.

Up next is George Washington (11-10, 4-3) at the A.J. Palumbo Center on Wednesday night, exactly a week after the Colonials played A-10 co-leader Xavier tough before losing 81-74 in a game marked by 16 lead changes and 14 ties. GW lost despite hitting 10 3-pointers and going 18 of 19 at the foul line.

The Colonials ended a four-game losing streak by persevering for a 52-46 win over Saint Louis on Saturday, when Dwayne Smith had 13 points and 13 rebounds. They held the Billikens without a field goal for a stretch lasting 13 minutes, 4 seconds in the second half, much like Duquesne held Saint Louis scoreless for 14:01 during a 67-45 victory on Jan. 12.

Tony Taylor, a 6-1 guard, averages a team-leading 14.0 points.

After the GW game, only one of only two for the Duquesne men at the A.J. Palumbo Center this month, the Dukes travel to St. Bonaventure on Saturday night. Then, they take a week off in advance of their Feb. 13 matchup against Xavier at the CONSOL Energy Center.

But there's much to occupy the Dukes' attention before that game. George Washington, an 87-79 winner at Oregon State, is capable of frustrating any opponent.

Still, these Dukes are showing they've advanced from hoping to win games to expecting to win. Most impressive about their streak is their unselfishness, and a shared attitude that an assist or a steal, not just a lofty scoring average, is a statistic worthy of high praise.

Yes, the Dukes don't just steal games anymore. Even if they excel in doing exactly that.

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