Duquesne's Belma Nurkic is a lonely figure shooting jump shots in the empty Palumbo Center at 6 a.m. before the start of classes.
The shots find the bottom of the net with repeated regularity. Right corner. Top of the circle. Left corner.
Nurkic, a 5-foot-8 sophomore from Whitehall, was trying to shoot herself out of a slump that had become burdensome. She has made just 4 of 29 field-goal attempts during a five-game stretch for the Dukes that included 1-of-17 shooting on 3-pointers and had seen her per-game scoring average drop to a season-low 7.9 points per game.
"I really don't have the answer," she said of her woes. "It has become so mental. I still have to figure the next one is going in. I'm thinking about it too much. Coach [Suzie McConnell-Serio] tells me to forget about the miss and keep shooting. She believes in me. I appreciate that; I thank her."
Nurkic, a 2011 Baldwin High School graduate, thought she was regaining her touch when she made her first two shots in a 68-41 victory against Saint Louis two weeks ago, but she missed on her next five.
"I was feeling better, then ...," she said, her words trailing off. "I thought I was taking baby steps and was getting back."
She finally broke the shooting drought with an excellent performance against Virginia Commonwealth last week, converting on 6 of 8 shots from the field -- all 3-pointers -- to score 18 points and help the Dukes to a 73-51 road victory.
On Sunday, in a key Atlantic 10 victory against Fordham, she took only two shots but made one as Duquesne defeated the Rams, 68-50, to improve its record to 16-3 overall, 5-0 in the A-10. Nurkic bumped her scoring average up to 8.2 ppg, fifth best on the team. Duquesne was scheduled to play George Washington Wednesday.
That shooting slump was all new for Nurkic, who hasn't struggled very often on the basketball court during her career. She had a stellar career at Baldwin and was a Post-Gazette Fabulous Five selection as a senior. When it came time to choose a college, she picked Duquesne.
"I really like coach," said Nurkic, who played in every game as a freshman at Duquesne, starting one, and averaged 3.4 points. "She's done it all, as a player and coach. She's been through it all."
McConnell-Serio can be a vocal coach when things don't please her.
"I like getting yelled at ... in a good way," Nurkic said with a smile. "It motivates me. But you don't want to get her stare. I don't know if I've gotten it yet. I'm hoping I don't see it."
Nurkic has started every game this season for the Dukes, who were riding a five-game win streak before the game at George Washington and are in position to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program's history.
"I think we can," she said. "I believe we can do big things. I can see us winning the Atlantic 10 and making it to the NCAAs. I don't want to jinx us, but I think we can go as far as we want if we continue playing together. We have the power to make ourselves go further. There's something special about this team."
Nurkic wanted desperately to play a major role for this team so she spent a gruelling summer of self-improvement.
"I try to be a gym rat," she said. "I told myself I need improvements. I needed to get stronger, quicker and quicker when I release my shot. I really want to be good and play at a high level. I wasn't at the right speed yet as a freshman. I think now I'm much quicker at defending and can stay up with the game better."
Nurkic was born in Bosnia, moved to Germany and then Holland and finally relocated in Whitehall by an international relief agency when war broke out in her native country. She said she was "7 or 8" when she and her family settled in Whitehall.
"I don't really remember Bosnia, but I sometimes have a dream when I'm in this place and when I wake up I ask my mother if that place exists. It might be a house, or a room, or maybe some toys. My mother tells me I'm probably seeing things back in Bosnia. When I came to the United States, the only English word I knew was 'Hi.'"
It didn't take Nurkic long to learn about basketball.
"I was in second grade and into music. I was playing the violin," she said. "I told my mother I didn't want to play the violin anymore and I saw a lot of different sports written on a sheet of paper. I chose basketball. I always liked sports. I did gymnastics, too. I wasn't good at basketball right away. But one thing led to another and I started getting better."
She added after a pause, "I know my shots will start going in again."