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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

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79
 
 
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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3/16/2007 12:37:00 AM

The Chain's Strongest Link

Eric Maynor
Eric Maynor and VCU move on to face Pittsburgh in the second round on Saturday.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

#11 VCU
#6 Duke

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VCU
VCU's Matt Coward holds the team's symbol of unity -- a gold chain -- after its upset of Duke.
AP

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was a small gesture, easy to miss in the last-minute melee of an NCAA tournament thriller, but if you saw the wave, you knew how the ending would unfold. The ball had barely emerged from the net after Duke's DeMarcus Nelson laid it in to tie the game at 77-77 with 10.3 seconds left, when VCU guard Eric Maynor turned toward his coach, Anthony Grant, and with two motions of his hand, conveyed a message:

No need for a timeout. I'm taking over.

Few seniors would have the cojones -- or the confidence -- to make such a move, with their 11th-seeded team's Cinderella life on the line against one of college basketball's most venerable programs. Maynor happens to be a 6-foot-2, 165-pound wisp of a sophomore, but no ordinary underclassman. In the Colonial Athletic Association finals, he scored nine straight points in the final two minutes to knock off 2006 Final Four darling George Mason, and on Thursday, hit two consecutive Rams field goals leading up to the last sequence. So when Grant spied Maynor motioning from the other end of the court, he was not worried, but rather, "excited -- because I wasn't calling a timeout."

"There were 10 seconds to go in the game, and I was going to put the ball in his hands, and let him give us an opportunity to win in regulation."

Maynor raced upcourt, a cold-blooded ballhandler surveying the chaotic scene in front of him. "I felt like they were going to be in a scramble situation," he said of Duke's defenders, "and they weren't going to be able to match up." While the Blue Devils -- freshman Jon Scheyer in particular -- seemed unable to anticipate Maynor's final move, some of his VCU teammates were well aware of what was about to occur. They affectionately call Maynor "Bobblehead," because his head appears disproportionately large, and as senior guard Jesse Pellot-Rosa said, "When he crosses over, his head bobbles -- all 'wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-like,' -- but if he doesn't bobble, we know he's pulling up."

Bobblehead didn't wobble, and Maynor drained a free-throw-lane length jumper with 1.8 seconds left, putting the Rams up 79-77 and sending the crowd at HSBC Arena into a state of frenzy. Maynor -- who would finish with 22 points, eight assists and three steals -- jumped into the arms of teammate Jamal Shuler as Duke called a timeout, and reserve Matt Coward sprinted off the bench holding up the gold chain that has served as the symbol of VCU's unity since late February. Blue Devils point guard Greg Paulus, whose pas de deux with Maynor had been the game's biggest storyline, missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. The big dance had its first and only big upset of opening day, and Duke's run of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances was halted.

Maynor's mom, Barbara Johnson, ran down to the front row of the VCU section in the aftermath, in hopes of getting a word in with her son, a Fayetteville, N.C., product who had grown up as a Tar Heels fan and thus had an extensive history of despising Duke. Thursday, he got to take matters into his own hands. "That was the best shot in the world!" Henderson screamed as Maynor was being interviewed live on CBS. "Look at him down there! He's still got energy!"

Indeed, looking at interviewees Maynor and Grant, the two men of the hour, one got the feeling that VCU's run in this tournament is far from finished. There are NCAA tournament upsets that come off as flukes, but this was not one of them; the Rams clawed back from a 13-point deficit early in the first half to trail by only two at halftime, and never lost their composure in a tense last 20 minutes. In Maynor, who plays like a senior, and fellow guards Pellot-Rosa and B.A. Walker, who actually are seniors, VCU has a battle-tested, hot-shooting backcourt that stacks up against any team -- mid-major or major -- in the country. And in Grant, the first-year head coach who was an assistant on Florida's national championship team last season, they have a motivator who is one of the rising stars of the profession.

In the last week of the Rams' regular season, coming off a BracketBusters loss to Bradley, Grant received an idea from mentor Billy Donovan -- to come up with a symbol that represented the team's desire for greatness. VCU was on its way to a stellar regular-season finish at 24-6 and 16-2 in the CAA, but Grant needed a way to make sure his players didn't get complacent. Out of his chat with Donovan, the chain -- a simple string of gold-painted carabiner clips, one for each player, with his initials written on athletic tape -- was born.

"We had a lot more that we wanted to accomplish, and what it was going to take was a tremendous commitment on their part," Grant said. "It was as simple as a decision. If they decided they would stay together ... we could accomplish these special things. They made that decision, and the chain is just a symbol of that commitment."

The Rams linked up for the CAA tournament, pulling off a stunning comeback over last year's historic NCAA giant-killers, the Patriots, in the title game. Afterwards, Maynor said George Mason guard Gabe Norwood wished him good luck -- and told him to go and win some games in the NCAAs. In the locker room on Thursday, VCU's players ceremoniously reconstructed the chain, one player at a time, before taking the floor against Duke.

The CAA's latest David has traded in its stones for golden carabiners. Every player has a link, and every link represents a different role. Grant, laughing, said that Maynor's responsibilities are simple: "To make shots at the end of the game."

Grant was then asked what he considered was his link's assignment. "I don't know," he said. "I guess, to tell [the players] what theirs are."

One he is adamant about not telling his Rams -- despite what so many pundits are saying -- is that they are this year's George Mason, even if their route to NCAA tournament glory went through the Patriots. "I don’t see it that way," he said. "We're just trying to be VCU."

The thing is, coach, that in the course of being VCU, you're starting evoke memories of George Mason. And that, in Cinderella parlance, is hardly a negative development.

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3/14/2007 04:14:00 PM

Setting the Stage in Buffalo

Aaron Brooks
Luke Winn/SI

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Better get here fast, fans. Coach K's signing autographs. Sure to fetch at least $9.99 on eBay.

The real news here in the Big B on NCAA tournament practice day -- generally a dull procession of workouts and questions from reporters writing game previews -- was that Duke freshman Gerald Henderson was available to speak to the media for the first time since his one-game suspension for injuring North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. Henderson is at least temporarily the most polarizing player in college hoops, because, as he said, "everyone knows me as the guy that hit Hansbrough now" -- and fans on either side of the Tobacco Road rivalry have essentially engaged in a blood-feud over the bloody incident.

During sixth-seeded Duke's open locker-room session Wednesday afternoon, Henderson talked about the phone-call apology he made to Hansbrough before the start of the ACC tournament. "It was a couple of minutes, nothing too lengthy," Henderson said. "Tyler, he understood. He said, 'Don't worry about it. It was part of the game, and unfortunately it happened.'"

Henderson, who got Hansbrough's number from former high school teammate -- and current Tar Heels freshman -- Wayne Ellington, said he watched some of UNC's games in the ACC tournament after Duke lost its first-round matchup with N.C. State. "It's unfortunate that [Hansbrough] has to wear the mask," Henderson said. "It looked like it was bothering him a little bit. I don't wish a mask on anyone."

A reporter asked Henderson whether he worried about being tentative in Thursday's game against 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth; in other words, would he be concerned about breaking someone's nose every time he crashed the boards? "I'll still have the same aggressive mindset," Henderson said. "Nothing is going to change that. ... If I'm aggressive, the team's aggressive -- that's the only way we can really be."

He was, understandably, far more interested in talking about a different phone call: the one he received from his father, ex-NBA player Gerald Henderson, after the brackets were announced Sunday night. He told young Gerald to beware, "Because they're known to have good guards at VCU." He wasn't necessarily referring to Eric Maynor, the hero of the Colonial Athletic Association title game. On a banner in the of rafters of VCU's Siegel Center in Richmond, Va., the number 22 is retired. The guard who wore it just happens to be Henderson's dad.

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