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Pitt, Duquesne play final City Game at Mellon

| Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

The battle lines for the biggest basketball rivalry to ever play out at the Civic (now Mellon) Arena were drawn before the first games took place at the facility.

Three Pittsburgh schools and Ohio State christened the building as far as basketball was concerned on Dec. 6, 1961, with a doubleheader. The original plan was for Duquesne and Ohio State, both top 10 programs at the time, to face off in the featured game following a preliminary between Pitt and Carnegie Tech.

Instead, Duquesne wound up playing Carnegie Tech and rolling to a 78-40 victory in the first game before Pitt got a chance to step into the spotlight and face No. 1-ranked Ohio State in the nightcap, losing 99-79.

"You have to understand that there was no love lost between Duquesne and Pitt to begin with," said Mike Rice, who played for the Dukes from 1958-62 and was their coach from 1979-82. "We were so excited about being scheduled to play Ohio State. They had Jerry Lucas, Bobby Knight and were a great team. Somehow, Pitt maneuvered to take that game away from us, and we were livid. We wound up taking it out on CMU in that first game, and we always held it against Pitt.

"We didn't have a gym on campus at the time. We played our games at the Pitt Field House, and we'd sell out while Pitt would be lucky to get a thousand people at their games. They could maneuver all they wanted in football and that was fine, but maneuvering in basketball is a different story."

Rice, now the color commentator on Portland Trail Blazers' telecasts, chuckled as he recalled the story over the telephone earlier this weekend. However, one could also sense traces of long-held indignation coming over the line.

Pitt and Duquesne will play at Mellon Arena for the 35th and final time tonight. It will be the first time they have met at Mellon Arena since the 2001-02 season as the schools have alternated hosting what is called "The City Game" over the past seven seasons. Duquesne stopped calling Mellon Arena home in 1988 when it opened the Palumbo Center on campus.

Mellon Arena is scheduled to be razed next year as the Penguins move across the street to the Consol Energy Center.

Pitt-Duquesne games started losing most of their meaning in 1982 when Pitt left the Eastern Eight Conference for the Big East and Duquesne stayed in the renamed Atlantic 10 Conference. Now, the game is just an early-season tune-up and the chance for players on both sides to catch up with one another and exchange pleasantries.

However, that wasn't the way the game used to be played.

"When we were in the Eastern Eight, those games were wars," said Sam Clancy, who starred at Pitt from 1977-81 and is now the Panthers' varsity letter club coordinator and athletic gifts officer. "The atmosphere was great when we played them at home at Fitzgerald House and on the road at the Civic Arena. The games at the Arena were really special because it held more people and the place would be sold out and have an electric atmosphere.

"It's not the same now. Our guys and their guys are friends from playing against each other in the summer. It's just different."

There certainly weren't any hugs or kisses exchanged when Pitt and Duquesne played before the split in conference affiliations. Instead, there were plenty of elbows thrown along with the occasional punch.

A moment that personified Pitt-Duquesne games at the Civic Arena came during the 1981-82 season, when the Dukes' Andy Sisinni and the Panthers' Darrell Gissendanner chased after a loose ball along the sidelines and got tangled.

They began shoving each other, which caused both benches to empty. Ultimately, Gissendanner ended up being thrown over the press table and into the first row of seats while Sisinni got knocked under the table. Both were battered, bruised and ejected.

"There was pure hatred on both sides," Sisinni said. "The games were just unbelievably intense, especially the ones at the Civic Arena. I don't know if anyone could truly understand the tension was like in that building on the nights or days we would play each other unless they were actually there. We hated Pitt, and Pitt hated us. There was no friendship involved. None.

"There would be 15,000 people in the stands. You'd have 7,500 fans rooting for Duquesne and 7,500 fans rooting for Pitt. And the fans hated each other as much as the players. I remember one year there was a huge fight in the upper deck. The officials stopped the game, and we all stood there on the court and watched for about three minutes until it finally got broken up."

Rice could attest to the fans' passion.

"I can remember dodging bottles that were thrown out of the stands when the refs made a bad call the fans didn't like in those games," he recalled. "It was commonplace."

Tonight, the old-timers get a chance to wax nostalgic one last time at Mellon Arena. Clancy will make the five-minute trip from his office at Pitt. Sisinni will drive from his native Erie, where he practices law, to see the game.

"I don't look the same as I did when I played, but I still might wear a funny-nose-and-glasses disguise just so Pitt fans don't recognize me," Sisinni cracked.

"It's fitting that a Pitt-Duquesne game is the last college basketball game to be played at the (Mellon) Arena," Clancy said. "I understand things change, and a professional sports team like the Penguins needs a new arena to increase their revenues, but there is going to be a little bit of sadness when that game ends (tonight). People think of it as a hockey arena first, but there were a lot of great basketball memories in that place, too."

The kinds of memories that made an indelible mark on those who were part of them.

"I've broadcast two NBA Finals in my job with the Blazers, and none of those games were ever any more intense than the games between Duquesne and Pitt at the Civic Arena," Rice said. "I've been around basketball all my life at every level you can imagine, and I've never experienced anything else like it."

City Game memories

Pitt and Duquesne will play the final scheduled college basketball game at Mellon Arena on Wednesday night in the annual City Game. Here is a look at some memorable series games at the arena:

Dec. 29, 1970: Pitt 70, Duquesne 58

The first-round upset victory by Pitt in the Steel Bowl ends Duquesne's 20-game winning streak in games played at the then-Civic Arena.

Dec. 6, 1974: Duquesne 100, Pitt 94

Pitt, coming off its best season in school history (25-4, NCAA Elite 8), succumbs to Duquesne and sophomore sensation Norm Nixon in the highest-scoring game in the series. Pitt goes on to post an 18-11 record and play in the NIT.

March 6, 1980: Duquesne 65, Pitt 63

After beating Pitt by a single point during the regular season, Duquesne escapes with another victory in an NIT battle.

March 7, 1981: Pitt 64, Duquesne 60

The victory in the Eastern 8 Tournament title game earns Pitt an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Dec. 21, 2000: Duquesne 71, Pitt 70

Duquesne enjoys its most recent victory after Aaron Lovelace scores on a layup with 2.2 seconds remaining and Pitt wastes a chance to tie on a missed technical foul free-throw attempt by Julius Page.

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