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On Monday, all was good again for Duquesne

PITTSBURGH -- This was a day of images.

Sam Ashaolu walked into his own news conference Monday afternoon, wearing a Duquesne sweatshirt, showing no signs of still having fragments of bullets in his head from a senseless shooting nearly two months ago.

Seven hours later, even after his brother John said at the afternoon news conference that Sam was advised not to go to Duquesne's season opener against Youngstown State, Ashaolu walked into the Dukes' locker room. He was trailed by friend Jason Campbell, who dropped everything in his life in their native Toronto to be with Sam during his rehab. They watched the game from an observation box at the Palumbo Center.

"He was really into the game," Campbell said. "He said to me, if he was in there, it wouldn't be as close."

Images.

When you stop to think about what this school, this program, this team, these players and staff have gone through over the past two months, it's amazing that they got to this day at all.

"What did we have, 10-14 bullets, five players shot and no one died?" asked Duquesne athletic director Greg Amodio, still in awe of how fortunate this university and these players were after a disagreement with a few local youths after a campus party on Sept. 17 turned violent -- and nearly deadly.

"[Sam] has made remarkable progress, an inspiration to us all," Duquesne president Charles Dougherty said.

Ashaolu was the most seriously injured of the five shot. Teammate Stuard Baldonado, who lost a piece of one vertebra, was the next worst, followed by Kojo Mensah (shot twice in the arm and shoulder), Shawn James (foot) and Aaron Jackson (grazed hand). Ashaolu was in a pool of blood after he was shot. He was rushed to Mercy Hospital, where he was near death.

"There wasn't a medical professional or EMT or policeman who thought he would [make it], and that's a fact," first-year Duquesne coach Ron Everhart said in the locker room about 30 minutes before tip-off.

"I remember, it was Wednesday morning, three days after he was shot, and after he had a bad night, there was a nurse who came out of the ICU, and she was crying," Everhart said. "She said to me, 'Have everyone at Duquesne offer their prayers.' "

From that point on, though, Ashaolu started to improve. He's made steady progress since then, going from a medically induced state to surgery to remove a bullet to, amazingly, a stage where he appears to be on his way toward the potential of a normal life.

At one point during the news conference, Sam Ashaolu spoke, slowly and quietly. He thanked his family, friends, doctors and the Duquesne community. He then said he "hoped [his teammates] played hard and win the game [tonight]."

The doctors said Monday there were no promises for Ashaolu and that he had a lot of work left to do, both physical and cognitive. Dr. Daniel Bursick, the chief of neurosurgery, said that Ashaolu's skull took the brunt of the bullet fragments, but that some did enter the brain. He did say that there are no plans to remove the remaining fragments and that scar tissue will form around them. He wouldn't rule out Sam one day playing basketball again.

However, Dr. Hilly Rubinksy, a neuropsychologist, said Ashaolu still has some visual and special deficiencies. He stressed that it has only been eight weeks since the shooting and that from this point forward, things will start to slow down as Ashaolu goes through outpatient recovery.

* * *

Ashaolu wasn't around before the game. His brother John, a graduate member of the coaching staff, was with the team in the locker room as Everhart gathered the players together about 50 minutes prior to the tip.

"We've got to play hard, and make sure no one comes into our house and plays harder," Everhart implored. He went over the scouting report on Youngstown State. Sitting in the locker room was Kieron Achara. He was on crutches after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot; as if this team needed more drama, Achara, one of only two returning players, is out for at least two weeks.

Before the Dukes went out for a final warmup, they huddled together and chanted, "OK, Sam on 3 … 1-2-3, Sam!"

Everhart then went back into a side room for a quick pregame ritual -- some chew. He doesn't let the players see him with the tobacco, but it's a nervous habit he goes through prior to tip-off.

Everhart sat down to reflect on his first game at Duquesne after rebuilding McNeese State and Northeastern. None of those openers could compare to this one after going through a shooting that could have killed five of his players.

"My whole life changed with this thing," Everhart said. "I used to get nervous butterflies and stuff like that but that's not the case. It's just different. I don't take anything for granted. I realized how quickly things can change. I've got a whole different mind-set. I'm just glad this game is here. It's another step in the whole tragic part of this."

Everhart said it was "great for all of us" to see Ashaolu come to practice twice. He said Ashaolu was expected to be an undersized power forward who could make 3s.

"There's no question that we were looking at him coming in here and making a major contribution," said Everhart, who took over a team that went 3-24 last season under Danny Nee.

The injury to Achara was brought up, too, since he said that made him sit and wonder, "What are we going to do now?" But it was the words from his new crosstown rival, Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, that still rang true.

Dixon has gone through hell and is still standing after he tragically lost his sister, 28-year-old Maggie, when the former Army women's coach was fatally stricken on April 6 with a heart ailment. Standing outside the locker room of an NBA exhibition game last month here in Pittsburgh, Everhart said Dixon told him, "You have to hunker down and wrap yourself around your work and keep going."

"That's the best advice I've had," Everhart said. "I can't look ahead or back or it will drive you nuts. He understands that you've got to stay focused."

And with that, Everhart went for a quick meet-and-greet with actual Duquesne boosters who have gobbled up new courtside seats and a pregame meal set up in new Palumbo digs that were finished around the time Nee was forced out.

Prior to the tip, James limped into the locker room with his crutches, too. Combine him with Achara, and the two players (both of whom are 6-10) were using 20 feet of crutches. Baldonado was there, too. He said that he's improving and getting more movement in his arm but he isn't opposed to redshirting the season.

Mensah said he's about two weeks from practicing. He, after transferring from Siena, and James, a transfer from Northeastern who led the country in shot-blocking last season, both had to sit out this season anyway.

"We're like a M*A*S*H unit out here, aren't we?" Everhart said.

* * *

There were no names on the Duquesne uniforms. They just arrived Monday morning, so there was no time to stitch anything on the back.

The Dukes' crowd offered up a decent college hoops atmosphere. The student section was three-quarters packed and sports information director Dave Saba said that you could have put the students from every game last season in the stands and still not matched the number in attendance Monday. The announced attendance was 1,830, but that supposedly was a true number, as opposed to the 1,411 claimed for last season's season-opening loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- a game for which the Dukes paid a $65,000 guarantee. They averaged 1,529 a game last season, but that, too, could be an inflated number.

"It was like a new atmosphere. It's like I'm at a new school," Jackson said. "Coach Everhart has energized the campus."

"I think we had 200 people at my first game at Northeastern," Everhart said.

The Dukes squeaked out to a 40-39 lead at the half.

"OK, take care of the ball, rebound and get back in transition," Everhart told the team in the locker room. "We're fine."

The Dukes got off to a slow start in the second half and were down by eight with 11:41 remaining, but didn't quit. Duquesne started three freshmen on this night, with the grittiest of the bunch being Scott Grote, a tough, hard-nosed player from Centerville, Ohio, who was recruited by Bowling Green and East Carolina. Grote finished with a team-high 23 points, finding his way to the basket when need be and making big shots to lead the Dukes to a comeback 81-75 victory.

Grote's father, Bob, a radio analyst on Wright State basketball games, said he was at Duquesne the day of the shooting. He drove home that night and got a phone call from Scott at 3 a.m., telling him of the shootings.

"The best thing is that they're playing again," Bob Grote said. "If they win, that's second. I just told Scott to take care of the fellas."

* * *

"Coach, here is the game ball!" Amodio said as he handed it to Everhart in the locker room. Everhart passed it over to Robert Mitchell, who in turn passed it to Baldonado.

"We're supposed to win," Everhart said of the opener. "I'm proud of you guys. You toughed it out, especially on the defensive end. It's the first time out of the box. It's not bad. We'll take it."

And then, appropriately, they all gathered together and said, "1-2-3 Sam!"

Little did they know, though, that he was about to walk into the locker room. When he did, the reaction was giddy. Ashaolu came in and slapped everyone's hand. He took a seat next to Mitchell, grabbed a protein shake, and started yukking it up with his teammates.

Images.

* * *

"We've waited so long for this," James said.

It just seems that way. Not even two months have passed since the shooting, but it probably feels like a lifetime.

"It's very satisfying," Everhart said after finishing his postgame talk. "We scrapped and fought and we played unselfish."

Later, Everhart told a news gathering that the expectations have increased every day. That in itself is hard to fathom. There were no expectations when Everhart got the job, with only two returning players.

Now, throw in five players getting shot -- one still recovering with bullet fragments in his head, two others going through extensive rehab and a fourth with a cast on his foot after having a bullet removed last Friday -- and you can see how beating Youngstown State in a season opener is cause for unbridled joy.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.