Sam Young scored a team-high 15 points as No. 3 seed Pitt dropped VCU in overtime.
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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.