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Duquesne’s Bittersweet Season Ends with Loss to Illinois in NCAA Tournament

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Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot knew before facing No. 3 seed Illinois in the second round of the NCAA tournament: His Dukes were bracing for one of the nation’s top offensive threats.

When the Fighting Illini lit up the scoreboard for 50 points in the opening half en route to their 89-63 victory, it left Duquesne shell-shocked in its season-ending loss. Yet for all the anguish the team felt afterward, the significance of the Dukes’ achievements this season wasn’t lost.

Dating back to Feb. 28, the Dukes were riding a nine-game winning streak that included the Atlantic 10 conference tournament title and a first-round upset win in the NCAA tournament.

For senior guard Dae Dae Grant, who averaged 16.7 points a game this season but was held to just 7 against the Illini, the loss was just the final stamp on some rare accomplishments by a Dukes men’s basketball team.

“That’s just a blessing to be able to have that [Atlantic 10 tournament title] banner hung up,” said Grant, who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament.

“Not many people can do that and have been in the position we have been in these last few weeks and even [the last] couple months.”

The loss also marked the final game for Dambrot, who announced before the NCAA tournament that he had planned to retire at the season’s end after seven seasons as the Dukes’ head coach.

“It wasn’t quite the way I wanted it to end,” he said Saturday night.

Dambrot recorded his first NCAA tournament win Thursday when the 11th-seeded Dukes opened the NCAA tournament round with an upset win over No. 6 seed Brigham Young University. His previous three NCAA tournament games (2009, 2011 and 2013) came while he was the head coach at Akron.

“I really don’t care about any of that,” Dambrot said on Friday while trying to figure out how to stop the Illini. “My only thing is, ‘Hey, get your team ready to play and play a good basketball game.’”

Unfortunately for the Dukes, Illinois never allowed them to get anything going.

The Dukes’ top two scorers this season, Grant and Jimmy Clark III, shot a combined 1-for-10 from the field in the opening half. At the same time, the Illini’s offense got clicking as it often does, ranked ninth among all NCAA Division I schools averaging 84.4 points per game.

The Dukes’ deficit grew to as many as 26 points before halftime.

While the score was unbalanced in the season finale, the players talked about the balance that Dambrot provided in his final season as coach.

“Me and Coach’s relationship grew, and it grew as well on the court,” said Grant. “We had a meeting earlier in the season, and I was basically asked to be coached harder.”

Grant added, “Coach took the initiative as well as the other staff, and they did that. I accepted that challenge.”

After an inauspicious 0-5 start to the conference season, the team picked itself up and reeled off a season that saw a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1977.

Though Dambrot will no longer be on the bench, his immediate plan is to be the biggest fan of the returning players.

“I need somebody to watch next year, so I’m going to watch all my guys that are still playing,” he said. “Spend some time with them, and figure out what I’m going to do next.”

Dambrot ends his career with a 529-305 record in 26 seasons, including 441-269 at Division I schools Duquesne, Central Michigan, and Akron.

“It really didn’t matter what the score was,” Dambrot said. “It’s irrelevant because we laid a good foundation for Duquesne to be a good program in the future.”

The Illini will play No. 2 seed Iowa State Thursday in an East Region semifinal in Boston.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel Adams

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