Freshman Mike Bekelja gives Duquesne the defense it needs

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Jerry DiPaola, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·3 min read
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Feb. 23—When Keith Dambrot looked back at Duquesne's loss to Richmond, he knew the truth.

Richmond is the third-highest scoring team in the Atlantic 10 (76.1 points per game). So, it wasn't outrageously out of line that the Spiders scored 79 in a seven-point home victory last Saturday. It was the most points Duquesne has allowed in a game this season.

But Dambrot also knew this: It was his team's first game in 17 days and freshman guard Mike Bekelja played only five minutes after recovering from a bout with the coronavirus.

"I don't think we played as good of defense," he said, "whether it's coincidence or not. We play better defense with him. We felt like we played our best basketball when he started."

Bekelja, who stands only 6-foot-1, has been labeled by Dambrot as Duquesne's best on-ball defender.

After a rough start to his career — he endured a broken foot early in the season and his brother Sincere Carry transferred a month later — Bekelja worked his way into the starting lineup Jan. 27 at Fordham.

In 111 minutes and three starts, he has played solid defense, moved the ball to the team's top scorers and committed only three turnovers.

"He's had a rough time," Dambrot said. "Emotionally (Carry leaving) was hard on him."

But Duquesne's coach believes Bekelja can handle it.

"He's strong. He's tough. He doesn't care about anything but winning," he said. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that."

Meanwhile, graduate senior Ryan Murphy, a transfer from Pitt, has not played in the past four games. Dambrot admits, however, "We need his shooting."

"It's a tough call," the coach said, noting he has focused on using fewer players as the team improved prior to its covid shutdown. "He's a good player. These are probably the toughest decisions you have to make as a coach."

Dambrot must decide if Murphy can help bolster the Dukes' biggest weakness — outside shooting — over the final few games, starting Wednesday at La Salle. His 18-foot jumper with 62 seconds left gave Duquesne a 71-69 victory against Rhode Island on Jan. 20.

"Does the extra shooting help you more than your chemistry and your defensive intensity?" Dambrot said.

The news that most encourages Dambrot is the return of sophomore Maceo Austin, who wasn't dressed for the eight games prior to Richmond after dealing with personal issues. Austin, a starter last season and at the outset of this one, played 20 minutes without scoring at Richmond.

"He's been happy, which is really all I care about," he said. "I thought he played hard."

Dambrot said he regularly wrestles with lineup decisions.

"All you can do as a coach is put the guys out there you think can win the game," he said. "I don't do very well when I worry about people's feelings. I do care about their feelings, but ultimately, I have to try to win the game.

"Coaching's hard nowadays. The ship's sailed and guys are coming and going, anyway. So, you might as well try to counsel them and help them.

"Guys are disappointed when they don't play, and they certainly don't want to hear some 62-year-old man tell them why they're not playing or 'Keep your head up.' At some point, they want to play.

"The only thing I tell people is the same thing I tell my kids and myself. When times get tough, I only know one thing to do and that's to fight. You're never out of it with me. I could change on a dime and play somebody else.

"Eventually, they have to choose to fight or not fight, just like all of us."

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .