Saunders' finish produces happy ending
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Perhaps this game typified, more than any this season, what the new-fangled Duquesne men's basketball program has become.
In a tight end-game situation, the other shoe never dropped on these Dukes as they were locked in a tussle against one of the Atlantic 10 heavyweights.
The national television cameras of ESPN2 twisted into focus, and viewers all across the country got to see a showcase not of the opponent, but that Duquesne can do a thing or two correctly.
When it mattered most, Duquesne wasn't on the receiving end of a fine game by an opposing superstar. Instead, the Dukes got one by one of their own.
• Game: Duquesne (15-2, 6-7) at Saint Louis (18-8, 9-3), 8 p.m. Saturday. Radio: KQV-AM (1410).
• Where: Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis, Mo.
Damian Saunders led the Dukes (15-12, 6-7) to a 73-71 victory against visiting Dayton (18-8, 7-5) Sunday at the A.J. Palumbo Center in a pivotal Atlantic 10 Conference clash. Saunders scored a team-high 20 points, none bigger than a layup with 25 seconds remaining that gave the Dukes a 72-71 advantage they refused to relinquish.
That layup came 14 seconds after he forced a game-changing turnover and propelled the Dukes to a third consecutive victory and fourth in five games.
"Everyone wants to try to define him," Dayton coach Brian Gregory said of Saunders, a classic basketball "tweener" at 6 feet 7, who plays virtually every position for the Dukes. "But I say, 'What is he? Who cares?' He is a great player, a unique player in what he does."
He was a player who was relatively quiet in the first half as Dayton took a 33-30 lead. Saunders went 1 for 5 in the first 20 minutes, scoring only four points.
No matter. He didn't sulk and he didn't pout on this day in which Duquesne honored its lone senior, Jason Duty, and implored the home fans -- who largely obliged -- to wear red shirts.
Instead, Saunders came out in front of 5,144 fans who squeezed into the venue (a total bolstered by a huge traveling contingent from Dayton) and made 7 of 12 field-goal attempts in the second half, taking over the game in spots.
"I played a pretty bad first half, and I was beating myself up," Saunders said. "The team came up to me and told me to keep playing, that things would fall my way."
Things did fall Duquesne's way, even as Dayton made nine 3-pointers in the second half, seemingly matching every Duquesne score with a long-range jumper.
Whether it was from the wing or the corner, off a set play or in transition and against a man look or the zone employed by Duquesne coach Ron Everhart, the Flyers -- who went 2 for 12 from 3-point range in the first half -- made a bunch of crucial 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes.
Dayton's Chris Johnson, who scored a game-high 21 points, made six 3-pointers with four coming in the second half.
"You have to take your hat off to them," Everhart said of Dayton. "They shot the ball extremely well in the second half."
Johnson's 3-pointer with 16:47 left gave the Flyers their largest lead of the second half at 44-38. From there, though, the Dukes clawed back and the game see-sawed the rest of the way, funneling into the final minute locked tightly before Saunders forced the turnover and had the layup. Bill Clark, who scored 12 points, made one of two free throws with 9.6 seconds left for the final outcome.
"From my standpoint, there's been something there all season, there's been a constant all season," Everhart said. "All season, we've been competing."
First Published February 22, 2010 12:00 am