Each defeat seems to land a little harder on Duquesne. The latest, a 78-74 loss against Massachusetts (23-6, 10-5) in an Atlantic 10 Conference home finale at Palumbo Center Wednesday night, was the most agonizing yet.
With 27 seconds left and the Dukes (12-16, 4-11) down by two points, sophomore guard Micah Mason's running jumper in the lane was swatted away by Minutemen center Cady Lalanne. The ball bounded back down the court and was knocked out of bounds in a tussle at midcourt.
During a five-minute review, the officials checked the courtside monitor, conferred, went back to the monitor and finally trotted off to the production room for a closer look.
In the end, they couldn't decide who touched the ball last. Instead, they went with the possession arrow, awarding the ball to Massachusetts. The crowd of 2,297 roared its disapproval, and Duquesne coach Jim Ferry hurled his clipboard to the court.
Minutemen guard Trey Davis secured the victory by converting four free throws in the final 10 seconds. Davis scored the final 10 points for Massachusetts and finished with 20 points -- 16 in the second half.
"We executed a play, they blocked it, it went out of bounds off of them, and [the officials] went to the arrow," Ferry said afterward, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief.
Was this game a microcosm of the season?
"Not of the season," Ferry said, "just of the last couple games."
It's not getting any easier for the Dukes to stomach such gut-wrenching finishes. They have had a chance to tie or win in the final 30 seconds in each of their past three losses.
Those games -- losses against St. Bonaventure, Dayton and now Massachusetts -- have come down to one critical play or, perhaps, one critical call.
"It's frustrating," Duquesne senior forward Ovie Soko said of the officials' decision. "But, to be honest, there's always going to be plays that don't go your way during the course of a game. ... You can't let it come down to stuff like that."
Soko registered 18 points and 13 rebounds for his seventh double-double this season, but his swan song at Palumbo Center was spoiled by the Minutemen, who drilled seven 3-pointers in the second half.
Massachusetts guard Chaz Williams, one of the top players in the Atlantic 10, scored 17 points and added six assists. This speedy, 5-foot-9 guard sliced into the paint and dished the ball back to open wingers, and they finished.
"He's a facilitator and a scorer," Mason said of Williams, "so it's tough to stop him and contest the 3."
Mason, who has the highest 3-point shooting percentage (.571) in Division I, scored 20 points, including 4-of-6 3-point shooting. The late blocked shot, though, surely will sting.
"These are the close games you have to pull out," Soko said. "The better teams win these games. We just weren't able to finish them off."
Riding the wave of momentum from their 71-64 upset of then-No. 10 Saint Louis last week, the Dukes started strong. They held double-digit leads of 18-8 and 27-16 midway through the first half before the Minutemen used a 15-4 run to erase the Duquesne lead.
Massachusetts took a 41-40 edge into halftime and came out firing in the second half. After shooting 3 of 10 from 3-point range in the first half, the Minutemen nailed three in a row early in the second.
Duquesne fell behind by eight midway through the second half but pulled even at the 7:14 mark. From there, the teams jockeyed back and forth until Davis put the Minutemen ahead for good with a 3-pointer with 1:43 left to make it 74-72.
"This is something a young team is going to learn from," Mason said, "but we still have this season left and the Atlantic 10 tournament, and we really believe we can make a run and beat anybody."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published March 5, 2014 9:44 PM