ALAN ROBINSON: Lost Weekend - Troublesome Loss Follows Dukes' Travel Adventure

Feb. 28, 2011

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

by Alan Robinson

SAINT LOUIS--Call this the timeline of a troubled road trip.

11:57 a.m. EST Friday. The Duquesne Dukes, two days removed from a second exceedingly tough-to-take 1-point loss in as many games, board a bus at the A.J. Palumbo Center for their Saturday night game at Saint Louis, a team they defeated by 22 points on Jan. 12. It's a chance to regain the momentum lost during the difficult losses at Dayton and to Rhode Island, to firm up a first-round bye in the Atlantic 10 tournament and begin a push toward a successful tournament run.

That's the plan. Of course, all plans don't always work, despite careful preparation and meticulous groundwork.

12:35 p.m. EST Friday. The first sign of trouble. The US Airways non-stop flight to Saint Louis' Lambert Airport, scheduled to depart in 80 minutes, is delayed.

1:05 p.m. EST Friday. This isn't going to be a brief delay. The plane, expected to be en route from Hartford by now, has yet to leave because of a) bad weather; b) mechanical issues; c) unexplained problems at the departure airport. The delay is now expected to be at least 2 hours, 15 minutes.

1:35 p.m. EST Friday. An hour after arriving at the terminal and going through pre-flight screening and baggage check in, Duquesne's traveling party is beginning to realize this will be a lengthy stay at an airport that, compared to 20 years ago, is relatively quiet. That's unusual for a Friday afternoon, one of the busiest travel windows of the week, but reflects the fact there are approximately 450 fewer flights a day leaving Pittsburgh than there were in 2001.

2:25 p.m. EST Friday. The McDonald's across from the departure gate is getting considerable business, most of it from individuals wearing Duquesne travel gear.



3:15 p.m. EST Friday. The plane from Hartford, scheduled to have left by now following a delay of several hours, has yet to depart.

4:05 p.m. EST Friday. It's becoming obvious the flight to Saint Louis will not be on the Hartford plane. Passengers headed to other locales, such as New York City, have been waiting for hours as planes bound for the snow-clogged Northeast are cancelled by the dozen.

4:40 p.m. EST Friday. The search now is for open electrical outlets to recharge smart phones, iPods and laptops. Dukes senior captain Bill Clark plops down on a carpeted area between gates. Others in the Dukes' party spread themselves over several gates, all in quest of that elusive, unoccupied outlet. As a result, coach Ron Everhart walks at least two miles making sure his players keep a positive attitude ad are informed of what's going on.

4:50 p.m. EST Friday. Director of basketball operations Jason Byrd, the busiest man in the traveling party, is wrapping up his 12th phone call to the Marriott Union Station in Saint Louis, where the Dukes will stay. Their afternoon lunch there has been cancelled, and the hotel is telling cooks and the wait staff they might have to stay over for a much later-than-planned dinner. Byrd also must make sure the charter bus company in Saint Louis is aware the trip is running hours late. The Chaifetz Arena staff also is moving a planned afternoon practice to the evening, creating some complications because there is a comedy show in the main arena.

5:05 p.m. EST Friday. The Dukes' travel party, as well as a few other passengers who have been waiting for up to five hours for the flight, are told a plane from Charlotte now will carry them to Saint Louis. One passenger says, "I'm glad we've got a basketball team on this flight or they might have cancelled it."

6:15 p.m. EST Friday. Finally, the outbound plane arrives, almost six hours late. What was expected to be a very brief stay at the airport has turned into a nearly day-long odyssey that has tested the patience of players, coaches and staff.

7 p.m. EST Friday. The flight departs.

7:50 p.m. CST Friday. Arrival in Saint Louis. There's still a 20-minute bus ride to the hotel and a check-in process to go through before the Dukes climb get back on the bus, head to Chaifetz and hold the day-before-the-game practice - one that often lasts a couple of hours.

9 p.m. CST Friday. The Dukes arrive at Chaifetz's two, sparkling and brightly lit practice courts for practice at a time no coach would schedule such a workout. The facility is impressive but, after a few minutes, it looks obvious the Dukes have left their practice legs back at the airport gate.

10 p.m. CST Friday. Some of the drills pick up in tempo as the Dukes finally start to unwind. Some don't. What's obvious is the players lack their usual energy and let's-go-get-`em mentality. It's 11 p.m. body clock time, and that's no time to practice.

11 p.m. CST Friday. There are late dinners and later-than-late dinners, but this is almost an early morning dinner. There's chicken and beef, macaroni and cheese and salad and a variety of soft drinks and juices, but it's a quiet and visibly tired group of players who eat quickly. They're hungry but, right about now, climbing into bed is more appealing 12 hours since they departed campus. The delay was unavoidable but, for any sports team, potentially damaging.

10 a.m. CST Saturday. It's a pre-shoot around breakfast, one that's nearly as quiet as the dinner the night before. Unlike the week before, when the Dukes took a charter flight to Amherst, Mass., that was so fast and uneventful that it lasted only slightly longer than the bus ride to the airport, this travel experience has not been an enjoyable one. The Dukes often charter for midweek games, so players can be in class the next morning. But it usually is more economically feasible to fly commercial on the weekend since players don't have classes on Sunday - especially when non-stop flights without layovers can be booked.

Noon CST Saturday. The Dukes head back to Chaifetz, this time for their pre-game shoot around in the main arena. The 3-year-old, 10,600-seat arena is cozy but impressive, with fans seated only a few feet from the benches. Freshman guard T.J. McConnell wonders who Mr. Chaifetz was (Richard A. Chaifetz, the SLU graduate and ComPsych Corp. CEO who donated $12 million) and how much the arena cost ($80 million in construction costs). Another player wonders what a Billiken is (a symbol of good luck that was a national craze in the early 1900s. Sportswriters thought SLU's football coach at the time, John Bender, bore a striking resemblance to the impish Billiken figure.)

12:15 p.m. CST Saturday. It's tough to gauge any team from watching it shoot free throws and jump shots and practice talking the ball to the basket. But Everhart - presciently and correctly, as it turns out - is concerned because he doesn't sense the same jump and energy his players had on the road 10 days before. Then, they came out pressing, trapping and running their offense to perfection while blowing out to a 26-6 lead at Massachusetts.

2 p.m. CST Saturday. The pregame meal is unusually short, mostly because the players eat in a hurry. It's obvious some don't plan to watch the Brigham Young-San Diego State game on TV, but prefer to nap.

5:25 p.m. CST Saturday. It's back to Chaifetz for the third time in 18 hours, this time for a game that counts. Everhart, trying to distance his players from the 1-point losses at Dayton and to Rhode Island, reminds them how well they played defensively in beating Saint Louis 67-45 the month before, when they held the Billikens scoreless for more than 14 minutes.

7:04 p.m. CST Saturday. The game begins, and the Dukes establish an early trend as Damian Saunders, Mike Talley and B.J. Monteiro miss early layups. Saint Louis opens up a 13-8 lead.

7:45 p.m. CST Saturday. Dukes trail 29-23 at the half in a game that's being played to Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus' preferred tempo. That's not a good sign for the Dukes, who wanted to push the pace much like they did last month, when Saint Louis went scoreless for a stretch of 14 minutes, 1 second. There would be no such turnover-fueled shutdown this time.

8:30 p.m. CST Saturday. Duquesne isn't playing well offensively or defensively, but keeps hanging around an opponent that came in with a 10-17 record. With 11:59 remaining in the game, Sean Johnson makes a free throw but misses a second that would have tied it at 38. The Billikens then take a 41-37 lead on Rob Loe's 3-pointer.

8:35 p.m. CST Saturday. McConnell misses a jumper and Bill Clark can't hit a 3 on the same possession, leading to Dwayne Evans' layup at the other end and a 43-37 Saint Louis lead.

8:37 p.m. CST Saturday. Saunders converts a three-point play to cut it to three, but the Dukes never get any closer. Billikens guards Mike McCall and Jordair Jett, non-factors in the earlier game, each take turns blowing through Duquesne's backcourt for layups. McCall converts on successive possessions to make it 47-40, and Jett's three-point play boosts it to 50-42.

"They made two really big shots when we made that run to get back in it, McCall and Loe made deep 3s and Jett made a great drive," Everhart said afterward. "We just didn't defend very well. That's the thing that's upsetting from my perspective, I don't think offensively they did one thing different than they did a month ago to us. We just didn't guard it very well."

The frustrated Dukes never get any closer than five after that as they keep missing lay-ups or shots around the basket. Duquesne misses 13 layups on the night - five by Saunders, three by McConnell, two by Mike Talley and one each by Monteiro, Johnson and Eric Evans.

"We had four or five stops there in a row, the game is right there in the balance, we didn't make it work for ourselves offensively on those three to four possessions," Everhart said later.

8:55 p.m. CST Saturday. Saint Louis wins its third in a row after losing six of seven, 62-51. For the first time this season, the Dukes don't lead by at least four points in a game. The Billikens shoot only 23.1 percent from 3-point range (3 of 13) and miss 10 of 21 free throws (Duquesne actually shoots better, 11 of 16), but commits 15 turnovers. One of the nation's leaders in steals, the Dukes have only seven (to Saint Louis' eight).

McCall scores 18 points and Jett, who hasn't made a 3-pointer all season in A-10 play, scores 14. In the previous game, McCall scored 7 and Jett 5 as Saint Louis had 20 turnovers to Duquesne's seven.

9:10 p.m. CST Saturday. Everhart is frustrated, but is calm and contemplative while doing his postgame radio show and talking with reporters. He is especially dismayed by the missed layups and turnovers.

"We were very inefficient from the floor offensively. We had a tough night in that regard. I thought our guards, collectively on defense, in terms of moving our feet and keeping pressure on the ball - that might have been close to the worst effort we had all year," Everhart said.

Despite the rugged travel day, the semi-ragged practice that followed and the absence of the daily routine that college basketball players become accustomed to, Everhart doesn't offer up the late-night practice as an alibi.

"We just didn't shoot it well," he said. "With the flight delays and all the travel problems yesterday, it's easy to make that as an excuse and it's not. We have to be more resilient than that."

10 p.m. CST Saturday. Each player gets his own pizza on the mostly silent bus ride back to the hotel. After leading the A-10 only a couple of weeks before, the Dukes now are in danger of missing out on what appeared to be a certain first-round bye for the conference tournament .

Asked if he is worried about his team's state of mind, Everhart said, "Absolutely, I was worried about that two games ago."

7 a.m. CST Sunday. Each player gets a wakeup call for the 7:30 bus ride to the airport, where a single Dunkin' Donuts stand offers the only option for a pre-flight breakfast. The players' preferred breakfast choice during what has become a lost weekend: Fruit smoothies.

12 noon EST Sunday. The US Airways flight touches down on time following a routine flight on a sunny day. A half-hour later, the Dukes board a bus for the campus. In 78 hours, they'll play their final regular-season home game against St. Bonaventure, a night on which seniors Clark, Saunders and David Theis will be honored.

Everhart will spend many of those hours trying to get his team back to playing like it did during Duquesne's longest winning streak in 40 years.

"We'll keep reminding them we're the same team that ran off 11 in a row and is a pretty good basketball team," he said. "I still have a lot of confidence in this team, I think this is going to be a good team before the end of the season and we'll bounce back."


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