Duquesne secures first NCAA Tournament spot in 46 years after topping VCU for A10 title

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Duquesne defeated VCU 57-51 in the Atlantic 10 championship Sunday, securing an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in 46 years.

Duquesne finished off their conference tournament run thanks to a team-high 10 points from guard Dae Dae Grant, who led the team in scoring with 16.9 points per game this season. While the Dukes struggled offensively — shooting 29.8 percent from the field and 8-of-25 from 3 — they out-rebounded the Rams 42 to 34 and forced 16 turnovers in the title game.

Duquesne finished sixth in the A10 this season and wasn’t expected to be a big factor in Atlantic City. Its coach, Keith Dambrot, considered retiring last summer to take care of his wife, Donna, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dambrot joined the program in 2017 and made it respectable almost immediately, but breaking through to true NCAA Tournament contention proved tough.

Now, Dambrot and the Dukes are going dancing.

An Akron, Ohio, native, Dambrot, who is White, got his first Division I head coaching job at Central Michigan in 1991 but was fired after his second year there because he had asked his players for permission to use, and then did say, the N-word before a game against Miami (Ohio). All the African-American players on Central Michigan’s team backed him in the lawsuit against the school, and they later won the right to change the school’s language policies, but Dambrot still got canned.

From there, he coached at a Jewish Community Center. Then he got hired by St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron in 1998. The next fall, a freshman named LeBron James enrolled at the school, which would win state titles in LeBron’s first two seasons under Dambrot.

Dambrot then left to become an assistant at Akron but remains close with James. He eventually became the Zips’ head coach and went 305-139 in 13 years, where he often won or finished high in the standings but lost in the league tourney. His next stop surprised just about everybody: Duquesne, which hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1977 and was seen as one of the worst jobs in the Atlantic 10.

“I’m the only person dumb enough to leave LeBron,” he told me in 2019, “and I’m the only one dumb enough to leave Akron, when we could pretty much win every year, to go to a place where the last nine coaches have been fired. I don’t know whether my master’s degree in business did me much good, because I’m apparently not the smartest guy in the world.”

Dambrot’s father, Sid, played for the Dukes from 1952 to ’54. The team was ranked No. 1 in the country during Sid’s senior year and finished as NIT runners-up. “I got tired of hearing my dad complain that Duquesne’s not any good,” Dambrot said in ’19. “Plus, I was a little frustrated by losing those championship games at Akron.”

Dambrot and the Dukes — Akron, too — get to play on basketball’s biggest stage. How about that?

(Photo: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

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