John Puk looked like a different player Friday night, and that was one of the main reasons why the University at Albany men’s basketball team finally established a strong inside game.
Puk, a 6-foot-10 junior center who lost 30 pounds in the offseason, scored a career-high 14 points, including six points in the final six minutes, to spark the Great Danes to a season-opening 69-66 victory over Duquesne at SEFCU Arena.
Puk, who also grabbed eight rebounds in 17 minutes, was limited last season to just 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as he suffered with a case of cellulitis, an infection on his leg.
But he worked hard to become a better player all summer by losing weight and hitting the training room hard.
“I’m happy for him, and I’m so proud of him,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown. “When the lights were on, John came to play. Even though he had two quick fouls and didn’t play much in the first half, he still played well. In the last 15 minutes, I thought he was outstanding. Look at the numbers he had in just 17 minutes.”
Puk clinched the game with a dunk on a feed from Sam Rowley with 50 seconds left to give the Danes a 69-65 lead.
But Duquesne was still hanging around.
After freshman guard Derrick Colter missed one of two free throws to cut the deficit to 69-66 with 41.6 seconds remaining, UAlbany worked the clock in order to get a good shot down the stretch. Mike Black drove the lane, but he was cut off. He flipped the ball back to Jacob Iati, whose runner in the lane bounced off the rim with just seven seconds left.
After a timeout with 3.4 seconds left, Colter inbounded the ball and then got the ball right back for a 35-footer that bounced off the backboard and the rim at the buzzer.
Although UAlbany’s perimeter shooters were supposed to be the main scoring options this year, Brown said all during training camp that players like Puk were much improved.
“Our goal tonight was to throw the ball inside,” said Brown. “We knew that opposing coaches weren’t going to be impressed by the numbers from our big men. [Duquesne head coach] Jim Ferry told me that our big guys killed them.”
“John and I had a good talk, and he said he wanted to take the next step. I told him not to tell me, but to show me,” said Brown. “There is no doubt that he’s improved from April to November more than anybody I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
“It feels good to contribute,” said Puk. “I was just playing as hard as I could and trying to help this team win.”
Puk said the game-winning dunk shot on Rowley’s pass was a no-brainer.
“Sam dimed me a couple of times, so I had to finish it for him,” he said.
“John was a monster tonight,” added Jayson Guerrier.
Black led the Great Danes with 15 points and four assists, while Rowley, a 6-6 sophomore from Australia, had 11 points, seven rebounds and one assist.
“Whether we won or lost this game, I think we are a better team than we were at the end of last season,” said Brown. “There are no egos on this team, and all these guys want to do is win.”
Duquesne of the Atlantic-10 Conference was led by Colter with 17 points and Quevyn Winters with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“I thought that was an early-season ugly game,” said Ferry. “I thought that UAlbany outscrapped us late in the game. It’s very early, but we’re not very good right now, and we have a lot of work to do. I’ve got to give UAlbany a lot of credit, but they are a very well-coached team with a lot of players who have a lot of experience. They went to their conference semifinals last year.”
UAlbany travels to fourth-ranked Ohio State Sunday.
Jones 1-4 0-0 2, PAntophlet 2-4 0-0 5, Marhold 1-4 2-2 4, Colter 5-12 6-11 17, Johnson 3-13 3-4 9, Torres 0-1 1-2 1, Binney 0-2 0-0 0, Winters 6-9 0-1 15, Jones 3-7 0-0 8, Abele 1-2 3-3 5, Martin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 22-58 15-23 66.
Metcalf 1-2 0-0 2, Guerrier 2-5 2-2 8, Puk 7-9 0-0 14, Iati 3-7 0-0 9, Black 6-15 1-2 15, Evans 1-1 0-0 2, Devlin 3-8 0-0 6, Hooley 0-4, 0-0 0, Rowley 4-9 3-3 11, Johnson 1-1 0-0 2, Wiegmann 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 28-1 6-7 69.
Halftime: UAlbany, 37-34. Three-point goals: Duquesne 7-28 (Jones 0-2, Pantophlet 1-3, Colter 1-6, Johnson 0-4, Torres 0-1, Binney 0-1, Winters 3-6, Jones 2-5); UAlbany 7-19 (Guerrier 2-5, Iati 3-5, Black 2-5, Devlin 0-3, Hooley 0-1). Rebounds: Duquesne 39 (Winters 11), UAlbany 35 (Puk 8). Assists: Duquesne 8 (Colter 3), UAlbany 13 (Black 4). Personal fouls: Duquesne 13, UAlbany 22. Officials: Kenneth Turner, David Walker, Alan Libardoni. Attendance: 3,278.