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HEALING PROCESS After campus incident wounds five players, getting back on the court is Duquesne's biggest victory

Forget the 2-6 record. Every time the Duquesne University basketball team takes the court this season, it counts as a win.

The Dukes are in town today to meet Niagara in a 2 p.m. game in the Gallagher Center (Radio 1440 AM) and first-year coach Ron Everhart has every right to use that familiar one-day-at-a-time cliche.

Rarely has a college program endured what happened on the Pittsburgh campus in the early-morning hours of Sept. 17. That's when a confrontation near the student union after a dance escalated into gunfire from some local youths.

Police estimates were that around a dozen shots were fired and five Duquesne basketball players were hit. The incident made nationwide news -- and not just in the sports sections of newspapers or on ESPN. This was front page and network television material.

"I don't know how people can understand this unless they've lived it and dealt with it every day," Everhart said this week by phone. "A prominent Division I coach I really respect told me if you had written down the worst possible scenario around a tough job, you'd have never even thought about this.

"You try to go day to day and treat it like your family. You don't think about the overall picture. You can't. You have to go day by day. It's all bits and pieces and it does have the ability to be mind-boggling."

Toronto native Sam Ashaolu was the most seriously injured player, taking bullets to the head. He was in critical condition, in a medically-induced coma, and was near death during his first three days in the hospital but has made a remarkable recovery to attend Duquesne games and practices.

Stuard Baldonado was hit in the back and lost a piece of vertebra, narrowly averting paralysis. Kojo Mensah, a star guard who had transferred from Siena, was hit in the arm and shoulder while Northeastern transfer Shawn James was struck in the foot and guard Aaron Jackson was grazed in the hand.

Only Jackson, a sophomore guard, is playing this season and he's the team's third-leading scorer at 11 points per game.

Mensah and the 6-foot-10 James -- who set an NCAA record last year with 6.53 blocked shots per game -- were sitting out their transfer season. Ashaolu and Baldonado were junior college transfers expected to have major impact. James kept practicing with the bullet in his foot until it was removed Dec. 6 and returned Wednesday.

"It's amazing to see these guys now," Everhart said. "Everyone is doing real well. And seeing Sam around is nothing short of miraculous."

Niagara coach Joe Mihalich knows all about that dreaded late-night phone call. He's been dealing with the suspensions of six players for a fight outside a Niagara Falls bar on Aug. 31. Four are back and star Charron Fisher wraps up his eight-game ban today.

"What we went through was bad but what they went through was just tragic," Mihalich said. "You can compare them in some respects but in others there's no comparison. Zero. We had off-the-court problems. Ours ended up in suspensions but theirs ended with someone nearly dying. At the time, they were simply hoping [Ashaolu] wasn't going to die."

Mihalich and Everhart, who was Dell Curry's roommate when he played at Virginia Tech in the early 1980s, have been longtime friends. As a high school senior in 1979-80, Everhart played at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., with a 23-year-old Mihalich one of the assistant coaches under Hall of Famer Morgan Wooten.

"He's a great coach and great guy," Everhart said of Mihalich. "When you're a player under him, you hope you can grow up to be like him because he's so grounded and intelligent. He was one of the first guys to call me after our situation. I imagine I was one of the first guys to call him after theirs. I've followed their situation closely and said my prayers over them just like he has for us."

After Duquesne opened its season 2-0 (with wins over Youngstown State and Northern Illinois) for the first time since 2001, the Atlantic 10 named the Dukes its "player" of the week. It was the only time in the award's 30-year history the league has chosen to honor an entire team.

"That was a great honor," Everhart said. "We've had some tough breaks prior to the season but no one dwells on it or even talks about it. They've just come to work and they've worked hard. You can never question these guys' heart, work ethic and togetherness."

Everhart has come into losing programs before. A longtime assistant who recruited Grand Island star Carlin Hartman to Tulane in 1989, Everhart spent seven years as the head man at McNeese State and five more at Northeastern, taking each school to the National Invitation Tournament.

But neither was in the same state that Duquesne was.

Last year, its fifth and final one under Danny Nee, the Dukes were 3-24 and their lone road win was at St. Bonaventure. It was their 19th losing season in the last 20 years -- and eight have featured at least 20 losses.

"There was always a proud tradition here," said Everhart, who grew up 90 minutes away in Fairmont, W. Va., and recalls the days when names like Mickey Davis and Norm Nixon were Duquesne stars.

"It's a tough challenge but it's a great place that provides great education. The school reflects my faith and I've never been prouder about a place because its compassion, support and outreach have been so great."

By necessity, Everhart has gone for the quick fix. There are 10 new players and six juco transfers. The shootings and injuries to 6-9 Memphis transfer Almamy Thiero and 6-10 Kieron Achara forced the Dukes to play with no one over 6-6 in the early going but Thiero and Achara are back now.

A freshman has led Duquesne in scoring in each of the eight games. Robert Mitchell, a 6-6 frosh forward, averages 18.5 points and has become the first player to win three straight Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week awards since 1999.

Things have gotten tougher of late as Duquesne has dropped six straight and was burned for 17 three-pointers in an 85-54 loss to West Virginia last Saturday. The goal for this year appears to be simply finishing 12th in the 14-team Atlantic 10 and qualifying for the conference tournament come March in Atlantic City.

"Our goal is just to work as hard as you can to get better and keep improving," Everhart said. "We have not talked about winning or losing and I won't all year. It's about getting better, building a work ethic and having pride in what you're doing."

Niagara, meanwhile, is 1-6 and counting the hours until Fisher can return Tuesday at Iona.

***

In today's other Big 4 action, Canisius is at Detroit (4 p.m., Radio 710 AM) in a matchup of 2-6 teams that is a second homecoming for Griff seniors Darnell Wilson and Chuck Harris. Canisius played there last year and lost, 69-68.

St. Bonaventure (3-6) tries to snap its four-game losing streak when it plays at defending America East champion Albany (2 p.m., Radio 1300 AM & 95.7 FM). The Great Danes are 4-4.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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