Can Marquette Stop Pitt's Title Hopes?
The 7-foot center looks to help the No. 12 Panthers claim at least a share of the Big East title and a possible top seed for the upcoming conference tournament Saturday when they play No. 20 Marquette in the regular-season finale for both teams.
With size always valued in the NBA, Gray had the potential to be a first-round selection in the 2006 NBA draft following his junior season. Instead, he returned as the focal point of the Panthers (25-5, 12-3 Big East) - who can claim the sixth Big East title in their history and first since 2004.
"We know where we stand," Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. "Every game in the Big East is about winning a Big East championship, and that's always been our goal."
Gray notched his 13th double-double of the season Tuesday, with 12 points and 13 rebounds in Pittsburgh's 80-66 victory over West Virginia. Normally soft-spoken, the pivotman challenged his teammates at halftime to play better in his final home game.
"This is a great win and a senior night to remember," said Gray, who averages 14.2 points and 10.0 rebounds. "We lost a little bit of our intensity in the first half, but we got it back after half-time. I told the guys in the locker room that we needed to get back to what Pitt basketball was and just start playing the way we were capable of. We needed to start having fun again and we did as the game wore on."
Pittsburgh can finish anywhere from first to third, depending on this game and contests involving No. 9 Georgetown and No. 16 Louisville this weekend. The Panthers would win the Big East title outright with a victory and a loss by Georgetown, but a loss and a victory by Louisville would drop Pittsburgh to third. Should Pittsburgh and Georgetown win, Dixon's team would be the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
The Panthers have some injury concerns heading into this game. Levon Kendall has not practiced due to ankle and toe injuries, while forward Sam Young played just 12 minutes Tuesday due to a knee injury. Both players are questionable for this game.
While Pittsburgh has designs on a conference title, Marquette (22-8, 9-6) is desperate to break out of a slump that has seen it lose four of its last five games. The Golden Eagles had their chances for a bye into the Big East tournament quarterfinals end with an 85-73 defeat at Notre Dame last Saturday.
Dominic James - who leads Marquette in scoring at 15.2 points per game - had 14 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, but he also shot just 6 of 20 from the field, continuing his shooting woes. In Marquette's last five games, the sophomore point guard is shooting just 30.1 percent (22-for-73), including 17.4 percent from 3-point range (4-for-23).
But Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean is more concerned with a porous interior defense that must regroup to contain Gray after allowing 18 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points to Notre Dame.
"We want to go home and shore things up,'' Crean said. "We need to work on our defense. We had to zone a lot more than we would have wanted, and that was certainly just to keep people in the game.''
James had one of his best games of the season in Marquette's 77-74 overtime victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 21, scoring 23 points and hitting a pair of free throws with 0.9 seconds left for the tying and go-ahead points. Gray totaled 16 points and nine rebounds, but also had six of the Panthers' 13 missed free throws.
Marquette has won the last two games between the teams and leads the all-time series 4-3.
by: Marc Young - theSpread.com - Email Us
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