Lightning struck twice on Monday, hitting Josh Duell square in the chest both times.
He took a charge by Mike Ringgold in the first half, then another in the second half by Kamron Warner.
Still testing his jaw after having caught a Jason Thompson elbow, Duell put out the welcome mat for Warner midway through the second half while Siena held a 52-42 lead.
With 2:26 left and the Saints leading Rider by 25, Duell launched his 6-foot-7, 259-pound body into the corner after a loose ball that got away. He looked like a player who simply didn’t want the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game to be over.
It is over, of course, but the Saints’ season isn’t. They’ll play in the first round of the NCAA tournament next week, and a big reason they made it has been the play of Duell, a Scotia native and Christian Brothers Academy graduate.
It’s a new experience for everyone on the team except Duell, who was a freshman at Vermont when the Catamounts shocked Syracuse in the first round in 2005. He’s not fast, he doesn’t jump to the clouds, but here he is again, a versatile big man who has been telling his teammates that they don’t have to feel like underdogs.
“Who would’ve thought you could play for two different mid-majors and get to go to the tournament twice?” said Duell’s brother, Rob, a former college baseball player who turned 25 on Tuesday.
“I told these guys that it’s a great experience, you’ve got to enjoy it, but you’ve got to go out there knowing that you can play with these teams,” Josh Duell said. “A lot of times, these mid-major teams will go out there and be in awe of the situation.”
He should know. Duell was on the bench in overtime when Vermont provided basketball
fans with one of the most electrifying upsets in years, beating fourth-seeded Syracuse, 60-57, when Gerry McNamara’s double-clutch three-point attempt bounced off the rim in the final seconds.
Duell became disenchanted with the game as a sophomore and transferred to Siena, the team he rooted for while growing up in Schenectady County. NCAA transfer rules forced him to sit out last season, but he has been a valuable player who has gone shoulder-to-shoulder with some big names and made game-winning plays this year for the 22-10 Saints.
He outplayed Stanford’s Robin Lopez in Siena’s home-opener, a 79-67 victory over the then-
20th-ranked Cardinal, made the game-winning three-pointer in the closing seconds of an 80-77 win at Rider and scored the final points in a 65-63 victory over Loyola in the MAAC semifinals.
When he isn’t in the spotlight, Duell has been doing the dirty work inside, and occasionally hurting teams with his three-point range. He has drawn by far more charges than the rest of the team combined.
“He’s sort of a perfect complement to the other four guys who start, and now he’s comfortable in his role,” head coach Fran McCaffery said in February. “I’d like to get him to shoot more, actually, but he’s very conscientious about shooting good shots and making a high percentage. He will not shoot contested shots. He moves it on.
“He’s a good ballhandler against the press, a good low post feeder who can pick and pop. He’s got a lot of dimensions to his game.”
“We call him ‘Old School Duell,’ because he does everything little that no one else seems to do,” junior guard Kenny Hasbrouck said after the Stanford game.
WITNESSED AN UPSET
Although the young Saints carry themselves with an air of professionalism and self-confidence, Duell’s experience in 2005 will be a useful resource leading up to next week’s first-round game. He’s been fielding plenty of questions about the atmosphere and the routine of playing in the NCAAs.
Duell’s old school, Vermont, marched into its game against Syracuse with the idea that they weren’t just a sacrificial lamb for a perennial powerhouse and the 2003 national champion. That attitude was instilled in young players like Duell by upperclassmen Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine.
“That was the main thing that they taught me, was stay composed and act like you belong,” Duell said. “Those guys were as confident as can be, and they knew that they belonged out on the court with the Gerry McNamaras and Hakim Warricks, guys that were getting so pumped up on the national level. Then you have these other two guys come in, and everyone was saying that Taylor and T.J. were the poor man’s Warrick and McNamara. T.J. and Taylor said, ‘We’re not poor man’s anybody.’ ”
And they weren’t. Germain Mopa Njila made a three-pointer to give the Catamounts a 56-55 lead in overtime, then Sorrentine shook off a play from head coach Tommy Brennan and launched a 32-footer that swished for a 59-55 lead with 1:06 left.
The Orange answered right back, then McNamara dribbled the ball off Terrence Roberts’ foot for a backcourt violation with 15.9 seconds left that led to a free throw by Martin Klimes. The rebound of McNamara’s desperation three was tipped around and out of bounds to Vermont with :00.4 left.
“I remember being on the bench thinking, ‘We can pull this out. This is our game to win now.’ ” Duell said. “Then, when we went into overtime, I thought, ‘Aw, man, their athletes are going to take over now. This is where they shine.’ Then, I look at my bench and see T.J. Sorrentine just focus, Coppenrath just focus, and obviously, everyone remembers the big play.”
It’s the stuff of legend now, how Sorrentine decoyed McNamara and Louie McCroskey by shouting “Run the play,” when all along he had
every intention of jacking it up from where he stood.
“They were going to screen on the back side of the zone for him to shoot a three on the wing. But he was at 35 feet or whatever and said, ‘I got it, coach, don’t worry about it, don’t even call the play,’ ” Duell said.
“I’m sitting next to [Ryan]
Schneider, and we’re on the bench thinking ‘What is he doing, no, no, no, we see him pull up, no, no . . .’, then boom, it went in, and we were all just jumping up and down. The whole stadium was elated, everybody was going crazy. It was amazing.”
The Catamounts lost to Michigan State in the next round, but their moment will last forever.
Duell’s time at Vermont, though, lasted just one more season.
Brennan had already announced that the 2005 tournament would be his swan song, and after he retired, Mike Lonergan was hired. Duell transferred to Siena, and Schneider, one of his best friends, went to Marist, where coincidentally, he became a teammate of McCroskey, who transferred from Syracuse.
Duell chooses not to get into specifics, but it’s no secret that Lonergan frequently berates his players to get them to do what he wants.
“I really kind of lost the passion for basketball when I was a sophomore,” Duell said. “That’s something that, people who know me, said would never happen.”
“He would never say it or show it, but you could tell he wasn’t the same,” Rob Duell said. “Change is always tough anyway, so there were a lot of different factors.”
“Despite how he plays, he’s a pretty sensitive kid who needs a lot of positive reinforcement,” said Dave Doemel, Duell’s coach at CBA. “One of the things coach McCaffery does is look for what a kid can do, not what he can’t do. I think that’s a system that Josh flourishes in.”
Duell’s game developed in two seasons at CBA, after he transferred from Niskayuna seeking better competition in the Big 10.
His toughness, though, was forged on the blacktop at home against his brother and Rob Duell’s friends.
“There were no easy baskets in the Duell driveway,” Rob Duell said. “But he couldn’t go in and tell our parents, because they’d just say you can’t play then. So he never did that. He always got up.”
“I think it was when I was 15, I kind of started looking down on him and saying, ‘Hey, you’re not that big anymore,’ ” Josh Duell said. “He’s like 6-1, 6-2, and I always admired him and looked up to him. Then it was, hey, you can’t beat me up anymore.”
In Scotia, Duell’s friends included high school stars Terrence Coppola and Jeff Juron, but because of district boundaries, they wound up at different schools.
At CBA, Duell teamed with Brian Monahan and Joe Bova to reach the Class AA state semifinals in 2004.
“Josh is the ultimate team player,” Doemel said. “He was a guy with a scholarship his senior year who took a back seat and put the team first. Monahan had been the focal point for three years, and he and Josh played so well together. Both were exceptional passers for big men.
“Josh changed more shots on defense and took more charges than the guards. His game allowed us to do so many things, like pressure out front, because he was able to cover up for mistakes.”
Although he couldn’t suit up last year, Duell benefitted from watching David Ryan, a gritty, cerebral player who did many of the same things Duell does now for the Saints.
His numbers are nothing special — 5.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game — but he makes his free throws, is dangerous from three-point range, which can cause matchup problems for opposing centers who’d rather sit in the paint, and makes big plays.
His rattling layup while falling on his back to beat Loyola in the MAAC semifinals will go down as one of the most memorable plays this season.
“I wanted to go out there and kind of play like David Ryan, shoot the three, get on the floor, be a scrappy guy,” Duell said. “But I think I fell into my role midway through the season when I thought, you know what, they don’t need me to score that much. Just do the other stuff, and that’s how I’ve played my whole life, so I was very comfortable in that role. We’ve got seven guys who, on any given night, can put up 20 points, so it made my job easy.”
Duell’s big moment at the NCAA tournament happened while he was at Vermont, but there’s precedent at Siena, too, after the Saints upset Stanford in the first round of the 1989 tournament.
If there’s another bolt coming out of the sky next week, you expect Duell will be waiting in the paint, ready to take one for the team.