Duquesne hoping to make statement against Panthers

Sean Johnson watched the steady stream of teammates bolt the

Duquesne basketball program last spring following a power struggle

with former coach Ron Everhart and made a promise to himself to not

abandon the program.

”Guys left, I stayed,” the senior guard said. ”I didn’t want

to leave. I didn’t want to go through all that.”

Besides, Johnson felt there was still too much work to be done,

beating Pittsburgh near the top of the list.

Johnson will get his final crack at the Panthers on Wednesday in

the 81st edition of the City Game as the Dukes try to end an

11-year losing streak to their crosstown rivals.

”I really want to go out and win,” Johnson said. ”Everybody

is going to have to be on point. I just can’t win it by


Probably not a good idea considering Johnson would basically be

going one-on-10. The Panthers (7-1) have cruised through the first

month of the season behind a deep bench and the precocious play of

freshman point guard James Robinson, who is flourishing despite

logging a team-high 30 minutes a game.

”We thought he’d be good (but) he’s probably better than what

we thought,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.

A welcome development for a program that lost its way last

winter when guard Tray Woodall went down with an abdominal injury

in an 80-69 victory over the Dukes. Woodall missed nine of the next

10 games and Pitt stumbled its way out of the NCAA tournament

picture for the first time in over a decade.

”It’s rare that (a point guard goes down) and when it does,

you’ve got to be in position and we weren’t in position and I knew

before going into the season,” Dixon said. ”This year we’ve got

James who is a seasoned veteran as a freshman. He’s got a great

understanding of the game.”

Even if Robinson, who is from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, is

still gaining an understanding for what the annual matchup with the

Dukes means to his new city.

”We’re going to prepare as if we were playing a team that has

won many times against us,” Robinson said.

Something the Dukes haven’t done since well before Robinson and

any of his teammates were born. Still, the game remains a vital

part of the nonconference schedule for both schools, a fact that

will not change even with Pitt going to the ACC next year and

Duquesne rebuilding under new coach Jim Ferry.

”This really isn’t about our RPI, it really isn’t about

scheduling,” Ferry said. ”It’s us against Pitt.”

A meeting that has been a rivalry in name only since 1981.

Still, there remains a sense of electricity when the programs face

each other. The game drew nearly 16,000 fans to Consol Energy

Center last winter and it remains a measuring stick of sorts for

both schools.

”Sometimes people ask us, because we’ve won a few of the games

lately, why do you continue?”’ Dixon said. ”It’s because it’s the

right thing to do. You’re never bigger than an institution or a

tradition and I think we understand that and hopefully we can

continue to do that.”

Particularly if the Panthers can continue to win. There was a

time when things were the other way around, an era Ferry believes

can return even though the process might take awhile.

The Dukes were picked to finish last in the Atlantic 10 but have

won four out of their last five as Ferry’s players start to get

comfortable with his uptempo system. Ferry led LIU-Brooklyn to

back-to-back Northeast Conference titles and NCAA tournament

appearances in 2010 and 2011 but now finds himself tasked with

reshaping a program that met with moderate success under Everhart

before things imploded last spring.

Johnson and fellow senior Andre Marhold stuck around amid the

chaos and now find themselves as the elder statesmen on a team that

features seven freshmen or sophomores in the rotation. It’s not

exactly the way Johnson envisioned wrapping up his career. Then

again, things could be worse. He believes things are headed in the

right direction under Ferry, even if the actual process won’t be

completed until well after Johnson is gone.

”We’ve become more of a team,” Johnson said. ”Even the young

guys are getting confidence in themselves.”

Something that’s bound to spike if the Dukes can beat the

Panthers for only the second time this millennium. It’s not the end

goal of Ferry’s vision, but it would certainly be a start.

”We’ve got to grind this out and make this a better rivalry,”

Ferry said. ”We have to do our part. We want to play this game and

we want to win this game.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP