- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — They went through far too much off the court simply to give up on it.

On Feb. 7, the Duquesne Dukes seemed flat and destined for defeat. The Dukes trailed host La Salle 101-94 with 2:25 remaining, and two Duquesne starters already had fouled out.

Considering what the Dukes had suffered in the past six months, the circumstances didn’t seem that daunting.

Five Duquesne players were shot — one in the head — as they walked home from an on-campus party in September. Another player was sidelined indefinitely because of blood clots in his lungs. The coach spent five days in the hospital — and missed one of the Dukes’ biggest wins of the season — because of an intestinal disorder. Walk-on players assumed important roles on a suddenly undermanned team.

“Our team has the strongest character of any team I have been a part of,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “We knew we were going to win this game [against La Salle]. We call it making a ‘push.’ Every game we know we are going to make a push.”

Guard Aaron Jackson hit a 3-pointer to ignite another comeback in what has been a season full of them. The fast-paced Dukes charged from behind to beat La Salle 111-105, matching the school’s record for scoring on the road that had been set just four days earlier in a win at St. Bonaventure. The victory also marked Duquesne’s fifth consecutive Atlantic 10 conference win, its longest such streak in more than a quarter-century.

Since then the Dukes have cooled, losing three straight to fall to 10-14. Still, for a team that suffered so much and endured a seven-game losing streak at the start of the season, things could be worse. Much worse.

“It’s like a movie,” said Aaron Jackson, one of only two players to return from a team that finished 3-24 last season. “Like Warner Brothers picked up a script and said, ‘Lets make a little move and lets throw some chaos in there.’ That is what it feels like. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”

It began as a horror show.

A group of players was leaving an on-campus party Sept. 17 when gunfire erupted. Five players were hit.

Forward Sam Ashaolu was struck the head. Forward Stuard Baldonado was hit in the elbow and lower back. Forward Shawn James took a bullet to a foot, and guard Kojo Mensah was wounded in the shoulder and arm. Aaron Jackson’s left wrist was lightly wounded, but he was not seriously hurt.

“It seemed like we were on a battlefield or something,” said Aaron Jackson, who was able to play in the team’s season opener. “You see four people down. It all happened so slow. You just look at it like, this is terrible. It was like war. You just go and help your buddies out. I didn’t hear anything. I just felt pain. I saw like a burn mark on my wrist and a little blood. It was unreal.”

Ashaolu spent several months in Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh and still has bullet fragments in his skull. Coach Ron Everhart considers it a “miracle” Ashaolu is walking at all and hopes he soon can begin remedial classes like speech pathology.

Doctors removed a bullet from Baldonado, and he has since returned to school and is participating in light workouts to regain his strength. It remains unclear though, whether he will return to the program. James and Mensah, like Aaron Jackson, suffered relatively minor wounds and returned to practice within two weeks but, as transfers, are sitting out this season.

Police charged William Holmes, who is not a student at Duquesne, with the shooting. Holmes apparently was jealous that his girlfriend had socialized with the players at the party.

“I look at the night as a very courageous night when all our team came together and pulled through,” said Aaron Jackson, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Hartford, Conn. “That’s when we realized each others’ character.”

The team gathered daily at Mercy Hospital to visit the 6-foot-7 Ashaolu, a Toronto native who had transferred to Duquesne from a junior college in North Dakota. Ashaolu remained in good spirits despite the near-fatal shooting, the ongoing recovery and seemingly little chance of restarting his once-promising basketball career.

“He is the hero,” said Everhart, who hopes to have Ashaolu on the bench as a manager soon. “That kid is as courageous and as tough as you can imagine. The whole incident changed my outlook. I feel I am blessed to walk out every day to practice. I feel like I kind of took that for granted. I am blessed to come out here and coach no matter what happens. It has taken a lot of the edge off.”

Everhart, a first-year coach who took over for the fired Danny Nee, had overhauled the roster, bringing in 14 new players in an effort to build a winning foundation for the future.

That became secondary after the shootings. However, once it was clear Ashaolu would survive, the games became meaningful again.

“You look at basketball a lot bit different,” Aaron Jackson said. “It can be taken away from you like that. You don’t take anything for granted.”

Everhart’s philosophy and the Dukes’ renewed commitment stemmed from a late-night meeting with Aaron Jackson during one of countless sleepless nights after the shooting.

“He said, ‘I am tired of losing. We are not losing this year,’ ” said Everhart, in his 13th season as a coach after coming over from Northeastern. “I said, ‘I feel that. I hear you loud and clear.’ I said, ‘So when I am on your butt every single day and practice and I am screaming at you and you are hating me when you walk out of the gym, I want to remember what you just said and want you to make sure everybody on the team knows what you just said.’ ”

Everhart pushed even harder because he wanted to make sure no one felt sorry for himself.

“I think even with the shooting and everything I have purposely, maybe even subconsciously, been tougher on these guys every day than maybe I would have,” Everhart said. “I have been so demanding on these guys. You have to admire how they responded.”

The Dukes often were limited to seven healthy players in practice. They won their first two games, then lost the next seven. A sign of things to come occurred in a 98-93 win at Boston College, a victory even more unlikely considering Everhart was back at Mercy Hospital, this time recovering from a ruptured colon.

Duquesne’s Scott Grote hit a 3-pointer with eight seconds left in regulation to force overtime, and freshman Robert Mitchell hit the go-ahead free throws late in overtime. Everhart listened on radio in the hospital lobby.

“We are chest bumping. We are hugging. I am in a hospital gown. I have an IV in my arm,” Everhart said. “I don’t know what people thought walking through that lobby. It must have looked like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ ”

That was the lone bright spot for the Dukes for a while. They lost four of their next five games, starting with an 89-41 debacle at Saint Joseph’s. Everhart felt there might be a better system for his undersized team. The Dukes dropped to a 5-10 record after a 71-59 home loss to Fordham, and Everhart took to studying tape of high-scoring teams like Virginia Military Institute.

He came up with a radical change: get off a quality shot within 12 seconds. Everhart used two platoons of five players to keep up the frenetic pace. The coach had thought about changing the system before the Fordham game, but a phone call about another player checking into the hospital told him it was time.

Almamy Thiero, a 6-9 reserve, had blood clots in his lungs and would be out indefinitely. That left Everhart with only one player above 6-foot-6 and only three taller than 6-3.

“I rolled the dice,” Everhart said. “My thing was we have a lot of guards. We don’t have very many big people. We can’t continue to play conventionally with an unconventional team and have a chance.”

That meant walk-ons like Jason Duty and Jimmy Sherwood — who hit five 3-pointers in the win over La Salle — suddenly were thrust into important roles. Against the Explorers, all 10 Duquesne players logged at least 13 minutes, and none played more than 26.

The Dukes lost their first game after the switch, a 101-87 defeat to Massachusetts. Then they won their next five — including wins over Dayton, Temple and Xavier — scoring at least 90 points in each victory. Suddenly, the Dukes were rising in the conference standings, on the verge of turning a tragic season into a special one — even if they don’t finish with a postseason berth.

“Every year, every conference has some great stories and some nationally,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “They certainly fit both categories. They’re the real deal. When you look at the teams they’ve beaten, it’s not a fluke.”

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