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Updated: Saturday, March 15, 2003 11:54 PM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL RECAP
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(5) Pittsburgh 74, Connecticut 56
PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Pittsburgh Panthers
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CONNECTICUT HUSKIES
Connecticut Huskies
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NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Brandin Knight ended the Big East Conference portion of his career with an elusive championship.

Knight scored 16 points and handed out six assists as the fifth-ranked Panthers captured their first Big East tournament title with a 74-56 victory over defending champion Connecticut.

Knight landed hard on his right foot and suffered a strained tendon late in Friday's semifinal victory over Boston College. But the senior was in the starting lineup for the Panthers and showed no ill effects by nailing a jumper and a 3-pointer in the first two minutes.

"Last night, I was thinking, 'Not this all over again,'" Knight said. "But fortunately when I got my X-rays, everything came up negative and last night I was with (trainer) Tony Salesi until almost two in the morning doing rehab and treatment on my ankle. And just really, I wasn't going to miss this game for anything."

Pittsburgh (26-4) won its ninth straight and finally broke through in the Big East title game after losing the last two to Boston College and Connecticut. Last year's 74-65 double-overtime loss to the Huskies was particularly frustrating as Knight was limited due to knee problems.

"Do you think there's any way that I was going to be able to hold him out?" Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland said. "He would have killed me. Didn't even enter into my mind to be honest with you, he's just too tough."

Panthers guard Julius Page was named the tournament MVP, but deflected credit to Knight.

"I can't take the credit, just like the MVP trophy," he said. "This (Knight) is the MVP to me, he's the leader, he's playing hurt, things like that. Everything we do is team-based."

The Panthers' floor leader has typified his team's blue-collar work ethic. Knight was left off the Big East first team after being named co-Player of the Year last season, but a pair of plays late in the game displayed his intangible qualities that have helped Pittsburgh to 55 wins over the last two years.

Knight leapt high for a rebound over three Huskies with Pittsburgh holding a 60-54 lead with 2:44 remaining. After the Panthers scored the next eight points at the foul line, Knight dove on the floor, stole an inbounds pass by UConn and called a timeout in the process.

"For me, it means a lot," Knight said. "Like coach said, they are a team that is expected to be there every year and they have a program that has good history. We want to start making some history."

Connecticut (21-9) was denied its sixth Big East championship, which would have tied Georgetown for the most of any school.

"Pittsburgh is a well-deserved Big East champion," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "I know it's their first one. They came out, flat out, and mentally, I thought just eventually ground us down and won the game by making plays when they needed to."

Jaron Brown collected 19 points and 10 rebounds while Page finished with 156 and four steals. Page turned in solid defensive efforts throughout the tournament, limiting BC's Troy Bell and UConn's Ben Gordon.

It was a special victory for Pittsburgh, which did not have a single player on the All-Conference first team. The Panthers' talent level and style of play have been questioned throughout the season, but their results cannot be.

"I wasn't going to lose us a game because I didn't play hard or step up for my team," Page said. "So I took it on myself to make big plays."

Page drilled a jumper with 15:40 left that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good at 42-40. It triggered a 12-4 spurt that opened a 52-44 advantage with 10:10 left to play.

Tony Robertson and Gordon responded with baskets to slice the deficit in half, but Knight scored one of the game's biggest baskets when he dropped in a 3-pointer for a seven-point lead with 6:55 remaining.

A 3-pointer by Robertson with 3:34 remaining pulled the Huskies within 60-54. The Panthers, the worst foul shooting team in the league at 63 percent, made 11-of-14 free throws to seal the win.

Knight's 3-pointer with seven minutes left was the final basket for the Panthers until a meaningless 3-pointer by Brown in the final seconds. UConn did not score in the final 3:34 until Emeka Okafor's meaningless layup at the buzzer.

Pitt overcame foul trouble on starting center Ontario Lett, who fouled out on a questionable call with just under six minutes left. But reserve forward Chevy Troutman picked up the slack with 12 points in his second game back after missing a pair with a strained ankle tendon.

"I thought Jaron Brown had a big game for us tonight and Chevy played big off the bench," Howland said. "We have really good players and they are tough and they are unselfish."

Taliek Brown made his first five shots and scored 15 points for UConn, but Gordon had a miserable shooting night, making just 5-of-18 shots for 13 points. Okafor's impact was limited as he finished with eight points and seven rebounds.

"I mean they just out-toughed us," Okafor said. "They played tough, hard defense and they stayed with us on offense and you know, we didn't."

The Panthers can look forward to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance under Howland and have an outside shot at a top seed. More likely, Pitt will get a No. 2 seed to match last year.


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