Duquesne earns first NCAA Tournament bid in 47 years, beating VCU 57-51 in A-10 championship game

Duquesne players, cheerleaders and team staff pose after an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in the championship of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament Sunday, March 17, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)

Duquesne players, cheerleaders and team staff pose after an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth in the championship of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament Sunday, March 17, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)

Duquesne colored red, white and blue streamers fell from the rafters at Barclays Center with the Dukes leading by 15 in the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship game, their first NCAA Tournament bid in 47 years in reach.

Problem was, there was still about 18 minutes left to play.

Jimmy Clark III, Dae Dae Grant, coach Keith Dambrot and Duquesne eventually got the the full postgame celebration — with a few less streamers — beating fifth-seeded VCU 57-51 on Sunday to earn their first invite to March Madness since 1977.

For a the sixth-seeded Dukes (24-11), who started the conference season with a five-game losing streak, the hard way is the only way they know.

“This isn’t a situation we haven’t been in before so we knew exactly what to do,” said Clark, who scored nine points and made four free throws in the final 21 seconds left to help seal the title.

The Dukes led by 14 at the half, but bringing home that long-awaited NCAA bid was a struggle. Duquesne scored only 21 points and shot 5 for 29 from the field in the second half, but the small Catholic school in Pittsburgh will head into the Big Dance with an eight-game winning streak.

“We’ve all year won at the defensive end,” Dambrot said. “We’ve had some monstrosities on offense.”

The 65-year-old Dambrot, who coached LeBron James for two years in high school, and the Dukes matched a program record for victories set in 1953-54, when Dambrot’s father, Sid, played for Duquesne.

“YESSIRRR!! Punch that (ticket) to the Big Dance @DuqMBB!!!” James posted on X.

The last time Duquesne won the A-10 and went to the NCAA Tournament, future NBA All-Star Norm Nixon was leading the Dukes, who beat Villanova in the conference title game.

Dambrot, left the University of Akron in 2017 — where he took the Zips to the NCAA Tournament three times in 13 years —- to take over a Duquesne program that was close to his heart but didn’t have much history of success.

“I knew it was going to be hard, especially when we’re building off of not much tradition,” Dambrot said.

Joe Bamisile led VCU (22-13), which was trying to repeat as A-10 tournament champs, with 20 points.

“Two teams competing for a championship, it doesn’t look pretty,” Bamisile said. “It was just an ugly game on both sides.”

After Clark’s free throws with 21 second left to made it a five-point game, Fouysseyni Drame made two to put the Dukes up 55-48.

A long 3 from Zeb Jackson with 9.9 left gave VCU a glimmer of hope. The Rams fouled Jakub Necas as the Dukes struggled to inbound the ball, but he missed both shots.

Clark made two more from the line with 1.9 left and finally Duquesne fans could celebrate for real.

Grant led the Dukes with 10 points, all in the first half, and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

The Dukes were up 15 early in the second half and the ball was in play when the game had to be stopped because of the falling streamers. Most landed on press row courtside — CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan had to pull some off himself and partner Dan Bonner — with a few making it onto the floor. The game was delayed about three minutes for clean up.

A-10 officials said the streamers and confetti used for the postgame celebration are red, white and blue no matter which team wins, to match the conference logo. A technical glitched cause them to fall too early, they said.

Maybe the premature celebration tempted fate, because the Dukes went the next seven minutes without scoring. They started the second half 1 for 15 from the field.

Dambrot, who admitted he is a superstitious former baseball player, said he was unfazed by the potential jinx.

“I was the most relaxed I’ve ever been,” Dambrot said. “I just tried to enjoy it for the first time in my life.”

It has been challenging season away from the court for Dambrot, whose wife, Donna, has been battling breast cancer.

Keith Dambrot said the four tournament games at Barclays were the first Donna has attended all season.

Duquesne finally found some offense to hold off the Rams, and Necas made a 3 from the wing with 4:35 left to push the lead to 49-41.

The Rams made one more push.

Jackson made a 3-pointer for the Rams with 2:12 remaining to cut Duquesne’s lead to 49-46 and after a forcing a turnover, Bamisile made two free throws to cut it to one with 1:34 left. That was as a close as VCU would get.

“It’s crazy to be able to come here and make history,” Clark said.

UP NEXT

VCU will hope for an NIT bid.

Duquesne will head to the NCAA Tournament as the only team from Pittsburgh in the field, but probably won’t get to stay home for the first round games being played in their hometown.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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