Duquesne basketball relevant again

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NCAA tournament-seasoned Xavier beat Duquesne Sunday in a battle for first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference, but the Dukes hardly were losers. There were only winners on this day at the fabulous Consol Energy Center. College basketball in Pittsburgh. Fans of the great sport. The A-10 Conference. The grand building itself. Yes, even the Dukes despite that 71-63 defeat, which left them at 8-2 in the league, a game behind Xavier.

Coach Ron Everhart couldn't figure out a way to contain a bigger, stronger, better Xavier club, but he has done something even more impressive. He has made Duquesne basketball relevant again. That's worth shouting about on this Monday morning. Certainly, it's bigger than the outcome of any one game.

Attendance was 10,509 -- a sellout because the Consol people wisely draped off the upper bowl to make the big building more intimate -- for a game some Duquesne historians called the school's most significant home game in 40 years. No. 14 Duquesne beat No. 17 Villanova Feb. 7, 1971, at the Civic Arena. Do you realize how long ago that was? Franco Harris hadn't made his Immaculate Reception. The Steelers hadn't dreamed of owning the 1970s in the NFL. The Pirates hadn't won their two most recent world championships.

Say it with me one more time:

Everybody was a winner Sunday at Consol Energy Center ...

"The environment was incredible," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It had an NCAA tournament-style feel. It was exciting for both teams. You felt like every play was magnified."

Mack went on to call the game "awesome" for the A-10.

"They should be playing the A-10 tournament right here," he said, repeatedly pointing his finger toward the arena floor for emphasis.

What a great idea.

Can I second it?

Everhart was too down immediately after the loss to fully realize the significance of the day. "I thought we had a great opportunity that we didn't take advantage of," he said. Duquesne led, 49-43, with 12 minutes left but then, as Everhart said, "We just stopped scoring." It didn't help that the Dukes had another abysmal day at the free-throw line, making just 13 of 27 shots. "That's every game," senior forward Bill Clark said, disgustedly.

"That was basically the same Xavier team that eliminated Pitt from the NCAA tournament last year," Everhart said. "The harsh reality of that hit about midway through the second half."

Of course, Everhart was frustrated. He's a fierce competitor. But it's nice to think by the time he made it home Sunday night that he could appreciate what a wonderful day this was for Duquesne basketball. It's not easy competing for the entertainment dollar in a college basketball town owned by Pitt, which will be no lower than No. 4 in the national polls today and will be going to the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive year. It's not easy competing with the Steelers, who have won six Super Bowls and nearly got a seventh eight days ago. It's not easy competing with the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and have plans to win it again this spring, or at least did before they started losing players by the handfuls to injuries and suspensions.

Everhart needs to keep repeating the number 10,509. That's the biggest crowd to see the Dukes play any team other than Pitt at home in nearly 38 years.

For Everhart, who grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., the electric scene at Consol brought back terrific memories of coming to Pittsburgh with his dad in the mid-to-late 1970s to watch Duquesne, Pitt and West Virginia battle in the Eastern 8 tournament at the Civic Arena. Those games were as intense and fascinating as any that Pitt plays now in the glitzy Big East Conference.

But somewhere along the line, Duquesne fell off the face of the basketball earth. It hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1977. It has appeared in just five National Invitation Tournaments since then, although these Dukes seem like a solid bet to get there this season.

"I like our future," Everhart said. "But ultimately, we've got to attract the type of kids it takes to keep this thing going. I like to think the environment here today has to help us ...

"I just hope we get a chance to do it again."

That's another great thought.

Can I second that one, too?

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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