(AP) – In a flash, anxiety became joy. Belief morphed into reality. The slow steady rise from obscurity to respectability validated in an instant. The free T-shirts that read ”Duquesne’s Going Dancing” transformed from wishful thinking to truth in advertising.
Welcome to the madness, Dukes.
Ninth-seeded Duquesne makes its NCAA debut in a matchup with Seton Hall at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday.
Duquesne was forced to sweat out the selection show to learn of its at-large bid. In a way, that was just fine by the Dukes. Three years ago, then-coach Suzie McConnell-Serio organized a watch party only to see the names of 64 schools pasted onto the screen: none of them Duquesne.
Yet coach Dan Burt didn’t hesitate to tempt fate again after the Dukes (27-5) lost the Atlantic 10 final to George Washington. He crunched the numbers and told his players to rest easy.
”You just couldn’t leave us out,” Burt said.
And the NCAA didn’t, though the Dukes admitted to a few anxious moments as the matchups for the first three regions went by without them.
”That little party we had my freshman year, it was awful,” senior guard April Robinson said. ”It came down to the last region like tonight. I started feeling the way I did three years ago.”
Until suddenly, she didn’t. When Duquesne popped up as the ninth seed in the Bridgeport Regional, the girls in the blue-and-red sweatsuits exploded from their seats, taking giddy selfies before gathering to shout ”family.” Getting to learn about facing the Pirates – and a potential second-round matchup with defending national champion Connecticut – could wait.
Monday night was about the final steps in a journey that began in 1974 with a 5-8 record and a schedule that included a 92-31 loss to eventual crosstown rival Pittsburgh’s junior varsity team. Over 40 years and 1,000 games later, the Dukes were finally dancing. The fact they had to wait out the show made it that much sweeter.
”I can’t explain it,” said senior guard Deva’Nyar Workman. ”I wanted to cry. I think I did cry.”
Hard to blame her. Duquesne watched McConnell-Serio build the Dukes to the edge of the tournament only to bolt for Pitt three years ago. That left Burt to put the final pieces together, something he’s done with a United Nations-approach to roster building. Six Dukes are foreign-born players, including junior Amadea Szamosi.
The Hungarian forward started getting recruited by Burt when she was 15. She was well aware the Dukes had never been dancing before. And while she had offers from more established schools, she felt a pull to the program situated on a bluff with no NCAA pedigree that she couldn’t quite explain.
”I knew Duquesne never made it,” Szamosi said. ”I just had this feeling it can happen and I was like, `Let’s make it happen now.’
”I just felt like our name belongs there and I just want to see it. I want to see it every single time from this year on.”
Duquesne, though, needs to get focused on the task at hand quickly. Seton Hall, making its fourth tournament appearance and looking for its first tourney win, lost to Rutgers in Storrs in the first round last year.
”We have some unfinished business here,” said guard Aleesha Powell, who sat out last season after following coach Tony Bozzella from Iona.
The Pirates (23-8) had won six in a row before falling to Creighton 77-56 in the Big East tournament semifinals March 7. Shakena Richardson scored 20 points, but Seton Hall shot 35.5 percent and allowed the Bluejays to hit 51.9.
Seton Hall is led by forward Tabatha Richardson-Smith, who was second in the Big East with 18.9 points per game along with 7.1 rebounds. Powell averages 14.2 points, while Richardson, a graduate transfer, is averaging 12.4 points and 5.6 assists and playing in the NCAA Tournament for her third school.
She started her career at Rutgers and played the last two seasons at Florida State.
”This year’s been the most fun, because I’m actually playing more and just more involved and so close with the team,” she said. ”It’s just been fun playing our style of basketball, running up and down.”
These teams have never met.