PITTSBURGH – A two mile stretch of Forbes Avenue is all that separates the University of Pittsburgh from Duquesne. The former is a Power Five school in the Atlantic Coach Conference whose main campus in Oakland is large enough to incorporate as a separate municipality within Allegheny County. The latter is a mid-major program from the Atlantic 10 Conference whose campus encompasses 12 blocks on The Bluff and sits in the shadows of Consol Energy Center and the Downtown Pittsburgh skyline.
Yet, the best D1 women’s basketball on Forbes Avenue is being played inside Duquesne's A.J. Palumbo Center.
While BR-127 Pittsburgh (10-12, 2-7 ACC) is struggling through their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, just one year after reaching the NCAA Tournament, BR-40 Duquesne (20-2, 8-1 A-10) is one game behind A-10 leader BR-43 George Washington (19-4, 9-1 A-10). The Dukes clinched their eighth-straight 20 win season with a 73-64 win over BR-200 Massachusetts-Amherst on Wednesday night.
When your program is in the shadow of a Power Five school, respect is often difficult to come by, especially in an area where college basketball in general takes a back seat to the city’s three pro sports teams. This is one thing that stood out to senior Duquesne guard Deva’Nyar Workman, who grew up an hour northwest of Philadelphia in Reading, Pa.
“The fan base for sports here is way bigger, especially for the Penguins and the Steelers,” Workman said. “In Reading, we don’t have as much fans like that. Of course, Reading people root for the Philly teams, but it’s not as big as this.”
With the program closing in on a record-breaking season, the spotlight in Pittsburgh is starting to shine brighter on the Dukes.
“It’s a great feeling to have family and friends be able to come to watch our games and watch us play, especially since we’re doing so well and winning,” said freshman guard Chassidy Omogrosso, a product of nearby Beaver Falls (Pa.) Blackhawk High School. “It shows how well our program has been doing and how many people want to come out and watch us play. It means a lot to us to have that support and play in front of that many people.”
It’s the Dukes style of play which head coach Dan Burt says draws fans to The Bluff.
“We have a good core group of loyal people who really support us,” Burt said. “We play fast and we’re a lot of fun to watch. We want to play a high possession, high scoring game so that people will keep coming back.”
Let’s take an in-depth look at the Duquesne program, from how they prepare for a game to the top players on the team and what the future holds for the Dukes.
When you walk into the old-school-ish A.J. Palumbo Center, you realize that you’re not in Storrs, South Bend, or even Oakland. The intimate 4,390 seat arena is a far cry from some of the arenas Power Five schools call home.
Since 1988, the arena with the on the corner of Forbes Avenue and Magee Street, which occupies the same block as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire’s “4 Engine” company, has been home to the Duquesne men’s and women’s basketball programs.
On this late winter afternoon, the Duquesne women team are wrapping up practice ahead of last week’s A-10 road trip to Virginia. Keeping a watchful eye along the baseline, but keeping a low profile, Burt oversees practices as assistant coach Matt Schmidt coordinates the offense while Bethel Park native Rachel Wojdowski coaches the defensive side.
“I’m very much a macromanager,” Burt said. “I give people responsibilities and then it’s their job to take those responsibilities on and do them at a high level. When you give people responsibilities like I have, they take great ownership in that and it’s worked out very well for us.”
Burt’s style is a dramatic difference from that of his predecessor, Suzie McConnell-Serio, now the head coach at Pitt.
“When Suzie was here, she ran the show,” said senior guard April Robinson, a four-year senior point guard. “But, with this coaching staff, Coach Burt’s kind of the one viewing what’s going on the court whereas we have three assistant coaches, but one has offense, one has defense and one’s a motivator. [McConnell-Serio and Burt] are obviously vocal and want the best out of their players.”
After prior assistant coaching jobs at West Virginia, North Carolina-Wilmington and Bucknell, Burt, a graduate of Washington (Pa.) Trinity High School (which, despite the religious sounding name, is actually a public high school) and West Liberty University, served as an assistant under McConnell-Serio for six years before moving the 18 inches over to the head coach’s seat.
“You sometimes have to make decisions that sometimes aren’t popular, but my management style is very different than what was here prior,” Burt said of the transition from assistant coach to head coach. “That’s not to say that anything was wrong with that, because we had great success then too.”
Assisting in the transition are two of Burt’s assistants with previous head coaching experience: Eddie Benton grew up in Pittsburgh's Manchester neighborhood who prepped at Pittsburgh Perry High School and was the former head coach at D3 La Roche College in nearby McCandless, and Schmidt, who coached at D2 Armstrong State in Georgia.
“That’s why I hired two guys in (Benton and Schmidt) who had been head coaches before so I knew what battles to fight and what battles not to fight,” Burt said.
While practices typically run nearly two hours early in the season, the on-court time decreases as the season progresses.
“Early in the year, we’re a lot longer,” Burt said. “Once you get to the second half of January, you’re at an hour and 30 minutes. You don’t want to burn them out and you start counting to see who stays after and who’s coming into the gym at night and (wonder) are we getting too burned out.”
Burt aims to trim practice time down to an hour and 15 minutes over the coming weeks. He will then expand to two hours during the week between the end of the A-10 tournament and Selection Monday.
Yet, there’s more to the game planning process than just on the court practices.
“Two days prior to the game we always watch the individual characteristics on personnel and what they run offensively,” Burt said. “On the next day (day before the game), we’ll show defensive concepts of what the other team does, pressing, out of bounds, halfcourt, those kinds of things. On the day of the game, if someone wants some individual attention, we’ll do a little bit of individual film, but pretty much it’s two days prior and that’s our typical schedule. We try to keep things consistent.”
MEET THE 2015-2016 DUKES
The Duquesne women’s basketball team features a mix of local and international players.
Make sure to grab a flag to wave for International Night! Let's Go, Dukes! pic.twitter.com/lJsBTJdSkO
— Duquesne WBB (@DuqWBB) February 3, 2016
“We have a strong chemistry and that started from preseason workouts and in the summer,” Omogrosso said. “The older girls have definitely taken all of us younger girls under their wing and showed us what they expect of us.”
“Everybody pushes each other and I think we have that chemistry,” Robinson added. “We’re very family oriented and I think it shows on the court.”
Let’s get to know the key players on the Dukes roster.
5’9” G, Sr., Springfield, Va.
*Averaging 15.0 ppg, 7.1 apg (second in the nation), 6.5 rpg; 38.8 percent shooter from the field, 29.4 from three-point range
*All-Conference Second Team selection last season and preseason A-10 second teamer entering this season
*Five-time A-10 player of the week honoree this season
*Has 1,249 career points, 517 career assists, 484 career rebounds and 189 career steals
*Recorded a triple-double (17 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) in an 89-53 win over BR-52 Dayton on Jan. 3
Burt on Robinson: “April is a special player. I’ve had a lot of good PGs over the last 19 years, and she’s the best. She’s the catalyst to our program. She’s had a senior year and a career overall that’s going to allow her to get her jersey in the rafters.”
5’10” G, Sr., Reading, Pa.
*Averaging 13.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 3.1 apg; tied for second best three point shooting percentage in A-10 (40.4) and leads the A-10 in foul shooting percentage (86.4)
*Transferred from Jacksonville (Texas) College last season
*Missed first four games of the season due to a foot injury; has started last four games
*Has five double-doubles on the season, including 17 points and 15 rebounds vs. UMass
Burt on Workman: “We always knew she was a kid who had special abilities. This year, she has really committed herself to the team and to having the best senior year possible. She gives you instant offense and rebounding any time she’s in the game. More than anything, I’m so proud of her development as a person; she’s going to walk away with a Duquesne degree and really have success in her life beyond basketball.”
6’3” Jr., F, Pecs, Hungary
*Averages 12.3 ppg and 8 rpg; a 45.5 percent shooter from the field
*Recorded seven double-doubles on the season
*Scored a career high 23 points in 55-40 win vs. BR-173 Fordham on Jan. 10
Burt on Szamosi: “Amadea is what you want when you have a daughter. She’s one of the three or four hardest working kids that I’ve ever coached, both in the classroom and on the court. Every day she stays extra. She’s been both outstanding both in the classroom and on the court. This summer, she’s doing an internship at Price Waterhouse Cooper.”
6’3” G/F, Fr., Tallinn, Estonia
*Averages 10.5 ppg and 6.3 rpg; 49 blocks third most in the A-10
*Four-time A-10 Rookie of the Week
*Blocked a school record eight shots vs. UMass
Burt on Lass: “She’s an outstanding post defender. We brought Kadri here to be a big guard, and with our depth at guard we decided to play her at the post. Next season, she’ll be playing the 3 and the 4 but this year, she’s our best post defender. She’s very good at driving the ball, specifically going to the right more than the left, and she has a beautiful hook shot. Every day, she brings it in practice.”
5’7” G, Sr., Bergen, Norway
*Averaging 6.3 ppg and 2.5 rpg with a 39.7 percent shooting average
*Transferred from Cowley County (Kan.) Community College last season
*Scored a season-high 19 in an 81-67 win over BR-237 North Carolina A&T
Burt on Gronas: “She’s the glue to our team. She would’ve fit right in with our seniors last year and the fact that she’s not flashy and she really is a kid that gives you consistency. But what she’s so undervalued for is her team defense; she plays gaps correctly and she knows the scout better than anyone.”
5’6” G, Fr., Beaver Falls, Pa.
*Averages 10.7 ppg and 2.3 rpg; 83.3 percent foul shooter and 43.7 percent shooter from the field, including 39.8 percent from three-point range
*Twice named A-10 Rookie of the Week
*Started first 18 games of the season; now first player off the bench
Burt on Omogrosso: “Chas is a kid that plays with a real joy to the game and a real happiness. I’m really happy about what she’s doing. She gives us a lot of range when she’s in the game because she gets her shot off very quick and she shoots it a couple feet behind the arc on a consistent basis. What’s improved has been her passing over the last month, and finding people off the block and also in transition.”
6’2” F, Fr., Wellsburg, W.Va.
*Averages 2.4 ppg in 6.6 minutes per game
*Scored a career high 14 points in a 95-59 win over BR-294 Maryland-Eastern Shore
Burt on Staffileno: “When she came to us, she probably had not run a lot of plays in high school and really didn’t play much defense besides ‘stand in the middle and be big.’ She’s a kid you can really pick and pop with. She’s got a really good outside shot and she’s got a nice “baby hook” in the lane. We think her best basketball is ahead of her.”
6’0” F, Soph., Ajax, Ontario, Canada
*Averages 1.6 ppg and 1.7 rpg
*Grabbed a career-high five rebounds in 86-62 win vs. BR-334 Howard
Burt on Thomas: “She’s been called upon to play every position on the court for us in a game this year from the 1 to the 5. She’s naturally best at the 2, 3 or 4; we’re playing her more at the 4 more than anywhere. She knows play from every position on the floor, she’ll rebound, she’ll screen and she knows how to play position defense. We’re really happy with the development she’s made from last year to this year.”
|Paige Cannon||6’1”||F||Fr.||Johnstown, Ohio||Appeared in two games this season|
|Eniko Kuttor||6’1”||F||Fr.||Budapest, Hungary||Appeared in 16 games this season; scored 4 points vs. Dayton|
|Conor Richardson||5’10”||G||Fr.||Carnegie (Pa.) Carlynton H.S.||Scored career high 8 pts. vs. St. Peter’s|
|Judith Sole||6’3”||F||Jr.||Igualada, Spain||Sitting out this season after transfer from Robert Morris|
|Julijana Vojinovic||5’10”||G||Fr.||Belgrade, Serbia||Appeared in 16 games, scored 6 pts. vs. UMES|
|Erin Waskowiak||5’11”||G||Fr.||Pittsburgh||Missed last season due to an injury|
LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT SEASON
Even with the departure of three seniors in Gronas, Robinson and Workman, the cupboards are far from bare at Duquesne, with a pair of Canadians and a Hungarian already committed to the Dukes in 2016-2017.
“We signed a recruiting class that, when it’s all said and done, ESPN will have ranked in the top 15 in the country,” Burt said with a glimmer of pride.
Montreal native Anie-Pier Simpson is considered a top 100 player according to several scouting sites.
“She’s a legitimate six-foot-two guard,” Burt said. “She turned down Harvard and Princeton to come to Duquesne to study biomedical engineering. She really fits what our culture is and we expect her to have an immediate impact.”
Halle Bovell, a 5-foot-11 guard from Hamilton, Ontario, was one of the top prep players in the province. She led Team Ontario to a Canadian national title and was one of the last players cut from the Canadian national team.
“She’s been very well coached in high school and defends exceptionally well already and will find minutes that way,” Burt said. “We’ve got to smooth out her jump shot a little bit, but athletically, she’s going to be our best athlete as a freshman. She’s got a high motor and we’re expecting great things out of her.”
Nina Aho is a 5-foot-10 point guard who was part of the Hungarian national team which won the FIBA 3×3 Under-18 European championship this past summer.
“She’s a kid that a lot of Power Five schools tried to get involved with,” Burt said. “We were very fortunate with my Hungarian background and having a couple of Hungarians on the roster, specifically Eniko Kuttor, who was (Aho’s) roommate on the national team. We’re expecting her to give us an immediate impact also.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
At the end of the day, there are two key goals within the Duquesne women’s basketball team. Win the school’s first A-10 tournament championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
“Being able to be a part of this team, making history, is important to me,” Workman said. “I could tell family along the way like, ‘yeah, I made history when playing for Duquesne basketball.’”
Duquesne got a little bit of motivation during the City Game at Pitt on Dec. 30 when the Panthers received their NCAA tournament rings before the game … and the Dukes promptly went out and dominated in a 79-65 win.
“I didn’t have to say anything to our kids,” Burt said. “They clearly understood what that was, no matter what the people down the street say. And that’s fine, I didn’t say anything, they knew. Like I said in the news conference, I’m glad they did it.”
Message received. Although Robinson felt a little added motivation as she was recruited to The Bluff by McConnell-Serio, the senior leader also looks at big picture.
“The Pitt game meant a little bit more because Suzie did coach here,” Robinson said. “We’ve had a mindset no one can stop us except for ourselves and we’re going to do whatever is necessary in order to be successful. We really want to win the A-10, it hasn’t been done in school history so that’s our number one priority.”
DUQUESNE BY THE NUMBERS
*Duquesne averages 73.5 ppg, best in the A-10, and allows 60 ppg, yielding the best scoring margin in the league ( 13.5).
*Duquesne shoots 41.9 from the field (third in the A-10), including an A-10 best 34.4 percent from three, while opponents shoot 35.1 percent from the field (second in the A-10) and 24.9 percent from three (sixth lowest percentage in the nation) while dishing out the second most assists per game in the A-10 (17).
*Duquesne hits the most three-point shots per game in the A-10 (7.5).
*Duquesne has the most road/neutral court wins in D1 women’s basketball with 11.
*With their win over UMass-Amherst on Wednesday, the Dukes have reached the 20 win plateau at the fastest pace since the 2010-2011 team recorded their 20th win against St. Louis (67-41) on Feb. 9, 2011 (their 24th game):
|2008-2009||20-12||Mar. 6, 2009||30||vs. UMass (A-10 Tournament)||72-51|
|2009-2010||20-12||Mar. 5, 2010||30||vs. George Washington (A-10 Tournament)||61-58 (OT)|
|2010-2011||24-9||Feb. 9, 2011||24||at St. Louis||64-51|
|2011-2012||20-12||Mar. 2, 2012||30||vs. George Washington (A-10 Tournament)||69-55|
|2012-2013||24-8||Feb. 24, 2013||28||at UMass||53-44|
|2013-2014||20-13||Mar. 21, 2014||32||vs. Mt. St. Mary's (Women's NIT)||62-52|
|2014-2015||23-11||Mar. 1, 2015||29||vs. St. Bonaventure||51-43|
|2015-2016||20-2||Feb. 3, 2016||22||vs. UMass||73-63 (OT)|