Freshman Lewis II provides hope for Duquesne basketball |
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Jerry DiPaola
Duquesne University's Mike Lewis II puts in a layup when Duquesne hosted Fordham at the A.J. Palumbo Center, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

Don’t think the moment will be too big for Duquesne freshman Mike Lewis II when he steps onto the court Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena for his first Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Lewis has been 19 years old for less than a month, but if the Dukes’ first-round game against Saint Louis (11-20) hangs in the balance, coach Jim Ferry won’t hesitate to order where the ball needs to go: Someone throw it to Lewis.

Only a strange set of circumstances this week will prevent Lewis from becoming the fourth freshman in school history to lead the Dukes in scoring. He has recorded 430 points (13.9 per game), a total of 43 ahead of runner-up Emile Blackman, a senior.

“We go to him late in games,” Ferry said. “He shoots 3s. He handles the basketball.”

He also carries Duquesne fans’ hopes for a basketball makeover.

Unless No. 14 seed Duquesne (10-21) can win five consecutive games through Sunday, the NCAA Tournament will start next week for the 40th consecutive time without the Dukes among the participants.

Lewis and Isiaha Mike — both named Tuesday to the A-10 all-rookie team — could provide enough spark over the next three years to stop that streak. At least, that’s the hope.

Lewis grew up a winner at all-boys Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis. A year ago, the Missouri state championship in the largest classification was at stake, and Chaminade was clinging to a 58-56 lead against Kickapoo.

Although there were three other Chaminade players bound for Division I programs, including third-team All-ACC choice Jayson Tatum of Duke, it was Lewis who stepped up and hit consecutive 3-pointers to ensure the victory.

“Two of the biggest shots of the year,” Chaminade coach Frank Bennett said. “It took some guts to shoot them.”

With Lewis, Tatum, Iowa’s Tyler Cook and Princeton’s Will Grayson leading the way, Chaminade finished the season ranked seventh in the nation, according to USA Today.

Lewis never got lost among those star players, but he said matriculating to Duquesne — where he is forced to carry the load most nights — has changed his basketball personality.

“It takes some getting used to,” he said. “I was so used to deferring to guys and passing (in high school). Now, I’m the guy they pass to.

“I tend to be more aggressive and sometimes be more selfish than I would like to be.”

Bennett said Lewis happily accepted a lesser role for the sake of winning.

“He ran the point for us and did a good job of knowing when to score and when to facilitate,” he said. “He did it because he wanted to win, never pouted, never sulked.”

Lewis chose Duquesne over Omaha, IUPUI and Illinois State. Asked if Lewis was under-recruited, Bennett said, “Definitely.”Ferry was honest with him, according to Lewis.

“He said, ‘We are going to need you to come in from Day 1 and set the tone,’ ” Lewis said. “It was very shocking to me. On my high school team, I wasn’t that guy or even the second option some days. I was like, ‘Wow. At a college level, you want me to be the main focus early?’ ”

Lewis accepted the challenge, and the season quickly became a learning experience for the young Dukes, who also start sophomores Nakye Sanders and Tarin Smith.

“It’s weird sometimes,” Lewis said. “I have to lead my teammates at the same time I’m learning things.”

Lewis leads the Dukes in 3-pointers (60) and free-throw percentage (83.2). On the negative side, he’s fourth in turnovers (59) on a team that has committed 442 of them, next-to-last in the A-10.

“If we can just take care of the ball a little better,” Ferry said, “we give ourselves a chance of winning the game.”

Note: A-10 commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade announced ticket sales at PPG Paints Arena surpassed $1 million for the first time in the 41-year history of the tournament.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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