Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pitt Drops Louisville 76-69 to Advance

Sam Young had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and hit a pair of free throws with less than a minute left in overtime to help Pittsburgh beat No. 13 Louisville 76-69 Thursday night and advance to the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

The seventh-seeded
The Pittsburgh Panthers fancy themselves as New York City’s basketball team.

So it is only fitting that they modeled their 2008 Big East tournament title run after the football team that stole New York and the country’s attention this season.

The seventh-seeded Panthers defeated top-seeded Georgetown, 74-65, on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden to give the Panthers their second tournament title. The Panthers also won in 2003.

They did it by following the story line and game plan that the Giants used to shock the Patriots in the Super Bowl last month.

“Levance Fields is a huge Giants fan and he came out and told the team, follow the Giants’ model,” said Pittsburgh guard Ronald Ramon of the Bronx, referring to the Panther point guard, who is a Brooklyn native. “They came out and played hard and came to win.”

The Panthers outworked and outhustled Georgetown, outrebounding the Hoyas by 41-29 and beating them in dives on the floor, loose balls corralled and the typical blue-collar nuances that have come to define Pittsburgh basketball.

The Giants’ comparison runs deep. The Panthers (26-9) had a solid but unspectacular regular season, just as the Giants did. Because Pittsburgh was only a No. 7 seed, it did not receive a bye and needed to win four games in four days. The Giants were a wild-card team and needed to win four games to win the Super Bowl. Georgetown (27-5) was not undefeated, as the Patriots were, but the Hoyas did enter the game a perfect 14-0 as a No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament.

Fields and New Jersey’s Brandin Knight, a former Pittsburgh star and now an assistant, hatched the analogy at the team hotel Friday night. Knight and Fields are the team’s resident Giants fans and got a laugh at recalling the similarities.

“Just like the Giants, nobody expected it to happen,” Fields said. “And obviously, we had the situation to do it and we did it.”

So it was fitting that when time expired Saturday night, it was Fields who chucked the ball in the air in jubilation. But the victory was a team effort, as five Pittsburgh players scored in double figures.

“Everyone stepped up,” Coach Jamie Dixon said. “Every guy made plays. I don’t even know where to start.”

The Panthers (26-9) have seemingly been annual Garden bridesmaids, making six of the previous seven Big East finals, but were 1-5 in those games. This title proved particularly sweet for the seniors, who had never won a Big East championship.

Heavy legs did not slow the Panthers, who became the second team to win four games in four nights to win the Big East tournament. They joined the 2006 Syracuse team, who rode Gerry McNamara to the title.

“We were in this situation my freshman year, but we ran into Gerry McNamara, and it was his time,” Fields said. “Now, this is our third trip here, and it my time and my teammates’ time.”

Ramon led the Panthers with 17 points and Sam Young added 16 to earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. DeJuan Blair scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Georgetown got 17 points from Roy Hibbert, who was limited by foul trouble. He had only one rebound at halftime and sat for long stretches of the game.

For two teams that do not play particularly aesthetically pleasing basketball, the final minutes were straight out of central casting. After building a 13-point second-half lead, Pittsburgh hit just enough free throws to stave off a Georgetown comeback. The Panthers finished the game 22 of 44 from the free-throw line, including a hideous 19 of 36 in the second half.

The Panthers showed that they had coalesced as a team since the recent return of Fields, their starting point guard, from injury. They showed that they would be bringing their typical brutish, bullying style of basketball to the N.C.A.A. tournament.

“It definitely gives us a confidence booster going in,” Young said. “It definitely gives us a lot of motivation going in. And I feel like right now we’re playing our best basketball.

Georgetown came into the Big East tournament with some stigma as to whether their regular-season conference title was more serendipity than good play. The Hoyas were the beneficiaries of so many fortunate bounces and whistles that Louisville Coach Rick Pitino called them “lucky” after the Hoyas beat the Cardinals to clinch the regular-season title on the season’s final weekend.

They again showed that their deliberate style of play makes them vulnerable when they fall behind by double digits. When asked how the loss would impact the N.C.A.A. tournament for the Hoyas, John Thompson III said, “I got to digest it before I can answer that question.”

The Panthers were more direct in their N.C.A.A. tournament assessment.
“We’re not done yet,” Fields said. “We want more.”
Just like the Giants.


Levance Fields, who had six assists Saturday night, is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point.

Panther Revival: From Nearly Dead to a No. 4 Seed
It was 86 days ago, on Dec. 20 of a young and promising season, that Pitt upset an undefeated Duke team here at Madison Square Garden. Junior point guard Levance Fields hit what would go down as one of the most cold-blooded shots of the year, a step-back three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, to beat the Blue Devils 65-64. It established the Panthers as a legitimate top-10 team -- they jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 in the next Associated Press poll -- but coach Jamie Dixon called it "the most bittersweet night in my coaching career."

The reason: senior forward Mike Cook, who might have finished as the team's second-leading scorer, had crumpled to the floor during the win with a torn ACL, lost for the season. There was speculation that after beating Duke, the rest would be downhill for the hobbled Panthers. What happened nine days later in their next game only strengthened that theory: Fields fractured his left foot in an 80-55 loss to Dayton and did not return until Feb. 15. The basketball gods were being especially cruel to Pitt -- said Fields, "We were mad, and we didn't understand why things were happening to us like that" -- and did not relent even after Fields was back in the fold. By Feb. 24, Pitt had fallen to 7-7 in conference play, all the way out of the polls, and on the fringe of NCAA tournament bracket projections.

So what does one make of the scene at the Garden late Saturday night, after Pitt's fourth win in four days to take the Big East tournament title as a No. 7 seed? There was Fields, dribbling out the clock on a 74-65 win over Georgetown in the championship game, then launching the ball skyward before his teammates, including Cook, mobbed him on the floor. And there was junior forward Sam Young, the tourney's MVP after scoring 16 points in the finale (and 70 since Wednesday), soaking in the celebration. Young said later that it "felt like I just won a million dollars."

What the Panthers had done was return to their comfort zone on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and revive their season, going on a surprise run that may elevate them all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs when the field is announced Sunday night. With this Big East tourney crown, the win over Duke, and the argument that their 26-9 record would be 28-7 or even 29-6 had Fields not been sidelined for a month and a half, Pitt has a compelling case to jump onto the bracket's fourth line. Such a position would have seemed unfathomable as of a week ago.

This rise was not built on a new style of play, but rather a return to the blue-collar identity that had faded during the Panthers' swoon. On Saturday against the Hoyas, that grittiness was on full display: Pitt barreled its way to the foul line for 44 attempts compared to Georgetown's nine, and the Panthers won the offensive rebounding battle 19-7, with freshman forward DeJuan Blair grabbing 10 on his own. Young even had three blocks -- all of Roy Hibbert shots -- to go with his MVP-clinching night. "For whatever reason, I didn't think we were playing as aggressive as we needed to, say 10 games ago," said Dixon. "But when we got all our guys back, we have just been more physical, more aggressive, and just more like we normally are, I mean, more like Pitt."

At the center of this renaissance is Fields, the stocky Brooklyn floor general who earned 13 attempts at the charity stripe en route to scoring 10 points. He may never get mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin or UCLA's Darren Collison, but Fields is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point. Over four games in the Big East tournament, he had 22 assists against just four turnovers -- an incredible 5.5-to-1 ratio -- making it clear just how much better Pitt is when Fields is running the show.

While standing outside of his locker room around midnight, with a piece of the championship net stuck behind his right ear, Fields mentioned that he had the option to heal for the remainder of this season rather than return in February. "I knew the risks and consequences of sitting out," he said, "but I chose to come back even earlier than projected, and that turned out to be a good thing."

Good indeed, for without Fields this hometown party would not have been possible. The question now is, was this celebration just that -- a nice streak of wins in a friendly setting for a team heavily populated with New York-area players -- and nothing more?

The Big East tournament title game is not new territory for Pitt; it has reached the final round in seven of the past eight years. Nor is the NCAA tournament a foreign place; the Panthers have been in the dance for each of the past six seasons. What they haven't managed to do this decade, however, is make it past the Sweet 16. The possibility here is that this Pitt team is uniquely on the upswing, haven already taken its beating from the basketball gods and built itself back into a contender. This time, they left the Garden with no bittersweet emotions, only hope that their best work is still ahead.

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