I’m a strong believer that there’s such thing as a good loss for a good team, and that’s exactly what SLU’s 71-64 loss to Duquesne was Thursday night at Chaifetz Arena. The Billikens hadn’t been as sharp for their last four wins of a 19-game winning streak before the loss, and perhaps the pressure of that spurt was taking its toll.
The Bills had allowed 59.9 points per game heading into the Duquesne contest, and had allowed 66 per game in their last seven (with two games allowing 81 or more points). More importantly, SLU came into this one with the top three-point defense in college basketball, allowing just 101 three-pointers (3.7 per game) and a 26.6-percent three-point percentage. Against Duquesne, the Bills allowed 8-of-15 three pointers for 53.3 percent – tied for their worst three-point defense of the season with the Bills’ game at Duquesne back on Jan. 22, when the Dukes were an identical 8-of-15 from three.
There have been other tidbits that make one think this can be a good loss. The Bills have regularly been building big leads, but then struggled to close out. Against George Washington on Saturday, they had a double-digit lead only to see GW tie it. Before that they had a seven-point lead at George Mason in a game they won in overtime, a 12-point advantage over VCU that disintegrated before SLU won by two, and a nine-point lead at LaSalle in a game they won by two. They need to put their foot on the throat of their opponent when they get a lead, and now they know that. In this game, they were up by seven with less than 14 minutes to go, but the lead slipped away.
The other thing that happened against Duquesne is that the Bills, in a very unusual development, just couldn’t get stops down the stretch. The Dukes made 11 of their final 13 shots with three turnovers in the last 12-plus minutes, and hit nine of 12 free throws to put the game away. That 85-percent field-goal percentage in the last dozen minutes is a long way from SLU’s season average of 39 percent against, and a team that forces 14.6 turnovers a game forced only 12 in this one. When the Bills have played in close games most of this magnificent season, they’ve been able to stop the opposition or get the ball away at key moments down the stretch. Against Duquesne, they simply couldn’t.
It’s easy for a group of college students to lose a little focus and intensity when they have such success. It happens with pro teams that go on long, successful runs, too. It happened to the Miami Heat and Chicago Blackhawks during long unbeaten strings last year. We saw some sloppiness toward the end of their streaks, and then the bubble burst. When it did, both teams were able to regroup, refocus, and both wound up winning championships.
While it would have been nice for SLU to wrap up the A-10 title on its home floor, and to finally see the winning streak end on the road or in the conference tournament, that’s not going to happen now. What can happen now is that, with the balloon reaching its maximum capacity and bursting, the Billikens can get back to what makes them great, and go on another run – this one to the Final Four in Dallas.