Duquesne, a team of second chances, is moving on to the second round


OMAHA, Neb. — As the buzzer sounded, the victorious Duquesne Dukes darted toward the press table and hopped on top. They looked out at their contingent of fans, many of whom hadn’t sat for more than a few seconds during the Dukes’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1977.

Freshman Jakub Necas, all 6-foot-8 of him, lifted his arms and let out a cathartic yell. The freshman from Blansco, Czech Republic, was exhausted after playing a career-high 30 minutes and scoring a career-best 12 points during the 11th-seeded Dukes’ 71-67 win against sixth-seeded BYU in the NCAA Tournament first round.

Tired legs be damned, the private Catholic school in Pittsburgh had won its first game in the tournament since 1969. Duquesne’s head coach, Keith Dambrot, announced Monday he will retire after the season. They weren’t going to waste a minute of this celebration.

“This was a great gift for the fans,” Necas said. “We wanted to celebrate with them and enjoy the moment. … I am tired. Later, I’ll celebrate by going to bed.”

The Dukes are a roster with players looking for second chances led by Dambrot, who has spent years working toward and hoping to have found his own career redemption. Dambrot was fired from Central Michigan in the early 1990s when he used asked his team if he could, and then did, use a racial slur while addressing his team. His players at the time had backed him in a lawsuit against the school and supported him after the university terminated him. But at 34 years old, he was out of coaching.

He ran skills clinics in Akron, Ohio, on Sundays for $1 per person at the Jewish Community Center. There he’d meet a 12-year-old boy, Little Dru as Dambrot still calls Dru Joyce III, who is now the associate head coach at Duquesne.

On Thursday, Joyce stood across the locker room, his arms crossed as he watched these players — who could become his players should he be named the team’s next head coach. He’s as close to Dambrot as anyone. Dambrot would coach Joyce as a high schooler at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where he was joined by teammate LeBron James. Dambrot credits Joyce and James for helping give him and his career another chance.

The NBA superstar is close with his former coach too and is even enjoying the ride with the Dukes, often tweeting about them and even gifting them his signature shoes — colored white and light blue, the same color scheme as the NCAA Tournament.

“Coach is big on second chances,” Joyce said. “Since I was 12 years old he was never shy of giving a guy another chance. It really speaks to him and how much he cares about his guys.”

The bond between Dambrot and guard Jimmy Clark III is forged with that same second chance in mind. Clark — whose steal and emphatic jam with 2:54 left became the moment when reality set in that Duquesne wasn’t just here to be a feel-good story — wasn’t so sure he’d ever suit up at a place like Duquesne.

The Covington, Ga., native was dismissed from VCU in 2021 as part of a university suspension. Clark then went to Northwest Florida State before finding his next home in Pittsburgh. When he looked at Duquesne’s record, he saw the NCAA Tournament drought. Dambrot had reached out to then VCU head coach Mike Rhoades, whom he said vouched for Clark’s character.

“Jimmy’s a bounce-back guy,” Joyce said. “He went through a little bit of adversity. … That connection (with Dambrot) is strong. They both had a chip on their shoulder to make a change, for people to see them, the impact they can really have, the switch in how they handle themselves.”

Now, the senior can’t imagine what life would be like without Duquesne. Clark beamed at his locker stall. He thought winning a tournament game would feel good, but he added that he didn’t think it’d be this good. He said he didn’t even want to get up on the press table to celebrate because he was too wrapped up in the moment.

While Dambrot promised him another chance, they didn’t think they’d get all this.

“I told him if you’re gonna make your comeback, you might as well make it in the (Atlantic 10) to show everybody what kind of person you are,” Dambrot said. “I crashed and burned too, and some people helped me come back and become what I became. That’s the beautiful thing about it all. He’s playing good basketball, but he’s redeemed himself as a person and I’ve done it simultaneously with him and I’m excited about that more than anything.”

Dambrot refers to Clark as the Pittsburgh Stealer, because he’s “the best stealer of the ball I’ve ever seen.”

“Sometimes he’ll drive you ballistic, because you don’t want him to gamble and he will,” Dambrot said with a laugh. “But, the one thing about having LeBron that taught me is, you gotta let people play to their strengths and let people loose a little bit. You have to trust them. He made some unbelievable plays when it mattered.”

Players buzzed in the locker room as they peered at James’ latest tweet about them. Some wore their new sneakers in Thursday’s game; others were too superstitious to make the change.

“I don’t wanna change anything right now,” said David Dixon, pointing to his pink high tops. The 6-9 forward scored seven points and corralled four rebounds while logging 25 minutes. It’s hard to blame him when the Dukes have won nine consecutive games.

As the players talked about the crowd in the area, something that was far from their mind even weeks ago, they openly pondered how they’d manage to take all their new gear home with them, whenever that time will arrive. This is new territory for most of them, but not for forward Fousseyni Drame. The graduate student from Mali played in 33 games and made nine starts during Saint Peter’s strut to the Elite Eight in 2022. He joked that perhaps he’s the special, magical link to these March runs.

And then, from out of the far corner of the locker room a voice rose above the chatters, as someone blurted out what many still can’t comprehend.

“This is crazy! We were 0-5!”

Yes, Duquesne did start A-10 play 0-5. Dambrot credits that slump and his team’s willingness to work through it as the reason why it was able to endure a few punches as BYU tried to answer back. Duquesne led by as many as 14 points early in the second half, but it knew the Cougars’ offense wouldn’t stay stagnant for long.

During this nine-game win streak the Dukes have elevated their defense. They were suffocating, making BYU, one of the best offenses in the country work for every inch. The Cougars shot 38.6 percent from the field and 8-of-24 on 3s. Necas and Dixon each blocked three shots.

“It’s a mindset,” Dixon said. “You gotta have that mentality that nobody is gonna score on you. Trading baskets is only gonna go so far.”

Whether getting fitted for a glass slipper or it’s the new LeBrons, Duquesne lives to dance another day. A matchup with No. 3 Illinois awaits, but until Saturday the Dukes want to live in this moment a little longer. They’ve waited long enough.

“It’s unbelievable,” Dambrot said. “They’re not gonna let me retire, I guess. … We’ll just keep postponing it.”

(Photo of Jimmy Clark III: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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