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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/17/2007 11:11:00 PM

Closer Look: Pittsburgh-VCU

#3 Pittsburgh
#11 VCU

Sam Young
Sam Young scored a team-high 15 points as No. 3 seed Pitt dropped VCU in overtime.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As the crowd filed out, a saxophonist in the VCU pep band hunched over and blew a few sedated, bluesy notes for no one in particular. The horns of the Pittsburgh ensemble at the other end of the floor drowned him out, blasting Celebration while victorious coach Jamie Dixon and guard Mike Cook were being interviewed by CBS, and we were left to dwell on what might have been here at HSBC Arena.

An amazing, 19-point comeback by VCU in the final 12 minutes of regulation -- much of it ignited by intense full-court pressure -- sent the game into overtime, but alas had no Shining Moment or Eric Maynor Miracle for an ending. What the Rams could do against Duke could not be replicated against the Panthers, who went on a 7-2 run to open the extra period and hung on to win 84-79.

While Pitt's role here in Buffalo will most likely be remembered as that of a mid-major villain -- it blew out Wright State before sinking VCU -- it leaves the first two rounds having proven an important point: That it is deep and experienced enough to win on a big stage even when Aaron Gray is ailing, and therefore should not be written off as mere Sweet Sixteen fodder for UCLA, the team led by Dixon's coaching mentor, Ben Howland.

Whereas last year's Panthers, who lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Bradley, might have bowed out in the face of adversity, this veteran team rallied around it. The first situation arose for Pitt late Thursday night, when the 7-foot Gray, their primary size advantage over the Rams, came down with an illness and couldn't practice on Friday. "Last night, I felt terrible," Gray said after Saturday's game. "I don't know if it was food poisoning or a stomach virus, but I got maybe an hour and half of sleep."

As Pitt's Big Queasy recounted the more unpleasant details of his symptoms in the locker room, he was so exhausted that the only way he could stand was with his hands on his knees. He had been limited to 26 minutes and looked delirious at times, but still managed to score 14 points (his season average) and dish out a team-high five assists. Gray was less impressed with his perseverance, though, than he was how many of his teammates had stepped up while he was nauseous. Cook had scored seven early points to help build a first-half lead, Sam Young poured in a team-high 15, and seven different Panthers finished with at least eight points.

"We have a lot of weapons, and with all the attention I'm getting, the supporting cast that can come up huge," Gray said. "We have a great playmaker in Levance [Fields], a great shooter in Ronald Ramon, big athletes in Sam Young and Keith Benjamin, and maybe one of the smartest players in college basketball in Levon Kendall. So if you try to take me away, there's definitely more options for this team."

Kendall fouled out with 3:42 left in overtime -- his glue-guy stat line reading eight points, eight boards and three blocks -- but the senior forward's headiness played a role even after he was disqualified. With 2.1 seconds left in regulation and the chance to win the game from the charity stripe, Fields, a sophomore, had missed two free throws, leaving the score tied at 69-69. His Goat Potential was huge heading into the extra period.

Walking toward the pre-OT huddle, Fields was met by Kendall, who grabbed the young point guard and said, "Look, the game is not over. Make sure you get a second chance to win it in overtime. We need you."

At the 3:10 mark in OT, with the score 72-71 in Pitt's favor, Fields shook off VCU's B.A. Walker with a crossover and drilled a cold-blooded 3-pointer. The Rams would claw back to within one in the final 30 seconds, but never fully recovered from Fields' redeeming long-range bomb. The sad-sax notes faded along with the potential darlings of the dance, and another big, bad veteran power was headed into the second weekend.

Player Who Impressed Me: Jesse Pellot-Rosa, VCU. JP-R got overlooked amid the Duke upset's Maynor Mania, but the Rams' leading scorer from the regular season was brilliant during their second-half comeback. The following stats are just jaw-dropping: Up until the point where VCU trailed Pitt by 19 -- the 12:11 mark of the second half -- Pellot-Rosa had put up two points, one assist, zero steals and zero offensive rebounds. In the final 8:49 of regulation and the five minutes of OT, he racked up 18 points, three assists, three offensive rebounds and one steal. Bravo, Jesse: You were a hyphenated hero in defeat.

Courtside Confidential:
Maynor wore a pair of customized black-and-yellow NikeID shoes, which he ordered online, that said "Macmain 3" on the tongue. His teammates borrowed the Macmain nickname from a member of rapper Lil' Wayne's group. ... Maynor's father, George, who was in the stands, was a fourth-round draftee of the Chicago Bulls in 1979. Also a point guard, he stayed for his senior year at East Carolina and entered the Bulls' training camp in 1980, where he was let go in the final round of cuts. Eric's clutch genes were passed down from George: Pops said he hit a game-winner to beat a Jim Valvano-coached Iona team in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1979. ... Despite Pittsburgh's proximity to Buffalo -- just 216 miles, according to Google Maps -- the Panthers had a surprisingly small contingent of fans at HSBC Arena. A larger showing might have helped them when the other 90 percent of the crowd turned in VCU's favor during the comeback.

The Big Picture: The Panthers' Sweet Sixteen matchup with UCLA will be billed as the Dixon-Howland duel, as they'll be facing their former head coach for the first time since he bolted for Westwood. It's an intriguing storyline, but I'm more interested in two less feature-worthy developments: 1) the Bruins looked mighty vulnerable against Indiana on Saturday and 2) this Pitt team is playing with far more confidence than the one that bowed out early in the 2006 tournament. When he looked around the huddle before overtime, Dixon said, "I don't think there was any doubt in my mind we'd win the game. The guys all believed."

The odds will be against Dixon & Co., who must fly cross-country and take on Howland's boys in their home state. Pitt looked shaky at times in the second half, but its players truly believe that the West Region isn't just a toss-up between UCLA and Kansas. After watching the Panthers weather VCU's storm, it's tough to disagree.

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posted by Luke Winn | View comments |


I thought PITT didn't look so good,
VCU was on fire, and kept playin till the end. PITT came back and looked like the team they were supposed to be in the end. go PITT
Posted: March 18, 2007 9:49 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Pitt got the W, but needs a much better performance from Levance (what was up with all those turnovers?) and Aaron against UCLA.

Also, how bout Sam Young? He has been huge for this team down the stretch!

Great game by VCU though. They showed some great pressure and shooting to make that run.
Posted: March 18, 2007 10:55 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
You didn't mention Levance Fields pounding his chest after the three, even though he could not make either one of those foul shots he had previously. Maybe a little more team ball would help.
Posted: March 18, 2007 1:32 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
I don't think a team that had 20 assists in a game needs to worry about playing more team ball.
Posted: March 18, 2007 6:07 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Fields has taken on a Krauser-like approach to games lately, which bodes ill for Pitt. Dribbling at the key for several seconds, then heaving a low-percentage shot before the clock expires, while his teammates stand around and watch, ain't gonna get it for Pitt. If he plays as he did earlier in the year (unselfishly), Pitt could go far.
Posted: March 18, 2007 8:02 PM   by Anonymous Josh O.
Drove down from Toronto for the Saturday games. The Butler vs. Maryland game was great and Butler really has some great supporters (who stood the whole game!). The VCU vs. Pitt game looked like it was going to be a blowout but as you said, VCU's full court press created all kinds of problems for Pitt and got them back in the game. VCU definitely won the crowd over (including my friend and I). Big props to the VCU band who were fantastic.
Posted: March 18, 2007 9:00 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
I agree Fields is starting to look a little too much Krauser-like. He needs to be more under control and look to distribute the ball.
I didnt get to see the game because my REGION decided I should watch the overrated Hoyas.
I did think they looked good(from the highlight tape), but to get beyond the sweet 16 they are going to need to hit more foul shots, and turn the ball over less. I think they match up well against UCLA, and look forward to the game.
Posted: March 19, 2007 11:22 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
I don't have a problem with the way Fields plays. Because at times when everybody is hesitant to take a shot he does it he's the only one on the court besides levon kendall that actually plays hard the whole time he's out there. I have a problem with arron gray being soft though. He needs to get tougher and play like the inside force that he is.
Posted: March 19, 2007 3:00 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Fields does play hard, which is great. But he is a point guard, and unless you're a very good shooter, your first job is to distribute and set your scorers up -- like Gray, Graves, and Cook. I agree Gray disappears at times, but he was apparently pretty ill, and still had 14/8 for the game..not bad.
Posted: March 19, 2007 3:52 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
If you watch any Pitt games this year (I've seen all of the them, half live) Fields is the only one who can handle the ball/press. If he passes out (which other teams want) they immediately trap (Ramon, Kendall, Graves especially, Benjamin, whoever). So the only reason he beats the press himself is not his unselfishness, its the teams overall lack of ballhandlers.
Field's malady at the end of the game (and in overtime) is indicative of a greater problem plaguing college b-ball.

8 games in this tourney were lost (or nearly lost) by players who now routinely display a shocking inability to make a free throw.

These are invariably the same players are usually the first to thump their chest or pickup their jersey logos or scream needlessly after a dunk.

It's a question of cameras and character, folks...and nowadays there are far too many of one, and far too little of the other.
Posted: March 19, 2007 7:30 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
I think that West Virgina should have made the tournament.... anyway i will not be suprised if pitt beats ucla and goes to the final four.
Posted: March 20, 2007 1:17 PM   by Anonymous Anonymous
it boggles my mind that this late in the season pitt still falls apart when the other team starts pressing, like in the 2nd half against vcu....they couldn't even inbound the ball. if that happens against ucla it will be over in the first half.

and IMHO it is time for gray to step up in a big game for once this season. he always has no problem beating up on the little sisters of the poor, but doesn't do anything (&looks like an idiot doing it) when the pressure is on in BIG games...its time for him to pull the skirt up!
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