A familiar ending for Pitt's season of firsts Print
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Sunday, 29 March 2009 10:21
NCAAB Headline News


 Pittsburgh
This was the season Pitt did so much more than it had done before.
The Panthers reached No. 1 in the AP college basketball poll for the first time, and did it twice. They beat a No. 1-ranked team for the first time, and did it twice. For the first time since beginning their eight-season run with 20 or more wins in 2002, they finally surpassed a major hurdle by reaching an NCAA regional championship game.
In the so-called Season of the Big East, they were the Big East's beast.
Except at the end where, this time, there were no firsts - and no Final Four. Once again, the Panthers saved their worst for last.
A team that went an entire regular season without playing a bad game, save for a loss at Providence after reaching No. 1, the Panthers seemed to lose some of their confidence and began playing tentatively - not to lose, rather than to win - during the postseason.
am they handled twice during the regular season. Then, as a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, the Panthers (31-5) followed with unimpressive, tougher-than-expected NCAA wins against East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State and Xavier.
Rarely did they play with the demeanor and assuredness they displayed while twice beating then-No. 1 Connecticut - yes, a Final Four team. They beat the Huskies 76-68 on the road Feb. 16 and again 70-60 on March 7, the last game in which the Panthers played like themselves.
Then came Villanova, and the game the Panthers will remember, and regret, for a lifetime.
They were down early, came back, went ahead, fell behind, surged back during an exhausting and ever-shifting 78-76 loss in the Eastern regional final on Saturday night. Up by four with 3 1/2 minutes to play, they looked to be on their way to the Final Four for the first time in 68 years, only to require two rallies from four-point deficits in the final minute to have a chance.
Coach Jamie Dixon credited ``courage, guts and big-game plays.'' But Villanova made one more play than they did.
For Panthers fans, the image of Scottie Reynolds pinballing his way through Pitt's defense to score the decisive layup with a half-second remaining will be as indelible as that of Atlanta pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera's game-winning hit in Game 7 of the 1992 NL playoffs is to Pirates fans.
we should have won the game,'' Dixon said. ``We played hard, we played smart, it just didn't go our way.''
It's almost impossible to come closer to the Final Four without getting there than this, and there will be no second chances for seniors Sam Young, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs or, possibly, sophomore DeJuan Blair, if he declares for the NBA draft.
``They set records. They've won more than any other group (at Pitt),'' Dixon said.
Young became one of college basketball's most reliable scorers, averaging 19.2 points during one of the best individual seasons by any Pitt player. Blair was the roughest, toughest player in a conference filled with them, with averages of 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds. No offensive rebounder in the college game could match him.
Fields ran the offense in a nearly turnover-free style, and his trademark became key baskets late.
The problem, at least during their NCAA run, was that those three represented nearly all of Pitt's offense.
Biggs and defensive specialist Jermaine Dixon disappeared offensively, so little regarded by opponents they often were left unguarded so defenders could double down on Young and Blair. Biggs had only nine points in Pitt's four NCAA games, none in the final two. Dixon had 15 points on 4-for-22 shooting.
vidence, Louisville and West Virginia. They were 15-5 against Big East teams and 16-0 against everybody else.
Minutes after a loss that will hurt for a long time, Jamie Dixon wasn't ready to talk yet about Blair's future or next season, but it will be a much different cast of Panthers, even if Blair returns.
The Panthers have stayed near the top of the Big East since 2002 by constantly replacing their players, an ability to move on without looking back that UConn coach Jim Calhoun credits for their consistency.
Next season could be different.
Gilbert Brown does not look ready to replace Young's scoring next season. Blair has no true backup. Fields played so much, no one got enough playing time to be groomed to replace him.
Dante Taylor, an incoming freshman forward, will play immediately, but it would be much easier to ease him in if there were a Young or a Blair, too.
This will be the Panthers' toughest rebuilding job in a while, made even more difficult by the memory of how close they came to greatness, only to be forced to settle once again for being very good.
 

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