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.
Levon Kendall (left) and the third-seeded Panthers face 14th-seeded Wright State on Thursday.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- We're all just killing time now until the games begin at 12:20 p.m. Thursday. Filling out our last pool sheets (the Blog Pool is up to 521 teams, and there's still time to get in on the action). That, or trying to find good restaurants in this Buffalo fog (any suggestions, commenters?). My last act at the arena on Wednesday was to interview Pitt's Levon Kendall, a player who appeared in the Style Archive, but whom I never had a chance to chat up during the regular season.
Kendall's Panthers are playing Wright State in the first-round nightcap at HSBC Arena -- an upset special in plenty of brackets other than mine -- but I wanted to ask him about a non-basketball-related topic. Last year's Tourney Blog featured a few musical interludes, and Kendall has All-American (or rather, All-Canadian) level connections to the music world.
His dad, Simon Kendall, was the keyboardist in Doug and the Slugs, who were a Canadian alt-pop powerhouse in the 1980s -- giving Levon the distinction of being the only college hoopster to have spent considerable time in the touring family of a north-of-the-border band. "It was pretty catchy, feel-good '80s Canadian rock," Levon told me of the Slugs' product. "I have a lot of good memories from when I was younger, running around backstage and through the crowds at concerts, with my sisters and other kids of the band members."
Levon said the Slugs were not rowdy -- "They were all family guys by the time I came around" -- but they did have a couple of gold records, and he still puts on their albums occasionally. "There's one song called Tropical Rainstorm that's sort of slower, and I don't think it was one of their hits, but that caught my attention recently," he said.
In the interest of educating my readers on the Slugs, I've teamed up with the mp3 blog Art Decade, which is run by a few friends in New York and specializes in often-rare tracks from the "Long Seventies" (1966-84). They didn't have Tropical Rainstorm, but are hosting the Slugs' greatest hit Too Bad, which appeared on the wonderfully named album Cognac and Bologna and was also the theme song from Norm MacDonald's The Norm Show. Go check out Art Decade, grab the song and play it while you're reading the rest of the Blog. Consider it an unofficial soundtrack.
Kendall's other musical connection is that he was named for the drummer in The Band, Levon Helm -- and Kendall, an amateur pianist, loves playing The Weight. "My parents bought me one of The Band's greatest hits CDs when I was in high school, and I got turned on to them then," Kendall said. "I figured I might as well know some of my namesake's songs."
Kendall said his some of his parents' resourceful friends came to New York to see Pitt in the Big East tournament last week, and then caught one of Helm's Midnight Ramble shows up in Woodstock on the same trip. "They were calling it 'The Levon Weekend,'" he said, laughing.
Such a double-dip won't be possible between Buffalo and the Upper West Side. At the same time his namesake will be raging at the Beacon on Saturday night, Kendall could be helping lead the Panthers into the Sweet 16.