Duquesne took Saint Louis to the wire Jan. 22 when it visited Palumbo Center. The Dukes claimed a two-point lead with 57 seconds left but couldn’t finish, and the Billikens came away with a 76-72 victory.
As crushing as the narrow defeat was for Duquesne, it came as little surprise — Saint Louis has played the role of escape artist to near perfection this season.
The Billikens are 25-2 and have climbed to No. 10 in the national rankings thanks to their current 19-game winning streak. Their only losses came nearly three months ago against then-No. 10 Wisconsin and then-No. 12 Wichita State, the lone unbeaten team remaining in Division I.
The true Houdini act has been in Atlantic 10 Conference play.
Saint Louis is 12-0 in the conference, but only three of those wins were by double-digit margins. In the other nine victories, the Billikens have an average margin of victory of 4.4 points. Twice, they needed to go to overtime.
Tonight, the Dukes (11-15, 3-10) get another crack at Saint Louis. This time, it’s on the Billikens’ home court at Chaifetz Arena, where they are 14-1 this season.
Duquesne has had its share of close finishes, but repeatedly has come up short, including losses against St. Bonaventure and Dayton in the past two games after the Dukes missed tying free throws in the final 30 seconds of each.
The difference in Saint Louis’ finishing ability, Duquesne coach Jim Ferry said, is the Billikens’ abundant depth and experience.
“They start five seniors that play a ton,” Ferry said. “Five seniors that have been to multiple NCAA tournaments and won the league championship last year. They’re all on the same page. They’re all bought in. They know how to win.”
In their previous meeting, both teams shot 50 percent, and Duquesne became the first team to surpass 70 points against Saint Louis’ stingy defense — since then, only one team, George Mason, has done that in regulation.
“They’re a great defensive team; that’s their bread and butter,” Ferry said. “They’re the best defensive team in the country. It’s very difficult to score against these guys.”
Ferry said Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans and guard Jordair Jett “could be the best players in the league.”
Evans averages a team-high 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Jett shredded the Dukes for 10 points, 11 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals in the previous meeting.
“I think he’s one of the most unique college basketball players I’ve seen in a long time,” Ferry said of Evans. “His strength, his brute strength, his quickness, his ability to get into the lane and to the basket and finish.
“You watch every game, and, whenever there’s a big possession for these guys, the ball is in his hands. And I have not seen him make the wrong decision yet.”
Matchup: Duquesne (11-15, 3-10 Atlantic 10) vs. No. 10 Saint Louis (25-2, 12-0), 8 p.m. today, Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis.
TV, Radio, Internet: NBCSN, WPGB-FM (104.7), GoDuquesne.com.
Duquesne: Has lost five of past six games. … Is 5-6 on the road this season. … Scored 15 second-half points against Dayton, the fewest points in any half in two seasons under coach Jim Ferry. … Senior forward Ovie Soko leads the team with 18.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
Saint Louis: Has won 19 games in a row. … Allows fewest points per game (59.9) in Atlantic 10 and 12th-fewest in Division I. … Leading scorer Dwayne Evans averages 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Hidden stat: This is Duquesne’s first game against a top-10 opponent since an 80-66 loss Dec. 1, 2010 against No. 3 Pitt at Consol Energy Center. The Dukes are 24-55 vs. top-10 teams.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.