Marquette's Jerel McNeal fouls Pitt's DeJuan Blair in the first half last night.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
College basketball's delectable postseason is practically upon us, but no matter how mad March gets between here and Detroit, it will be dearly blessed to produce the sustained bursts of exquisite play that Pitt and Marquette exchanged last night at the Petersen Events Center.
This was the 10th night of hot hoops theatre matching Top 25 teams in the Pete throughout this bone-rattling winter, and, if it wasn't the best of the reliably brilliant Big East episodes, it disappointed only the Golden Eagles, who've grown used to rejection in the wake of a season-ending injury to senior point guard Dominic James
That No. 13 Marquette lost for the third consecutive time likely isn't the point. That it showed it can take a punch from No. 3 Pitt, the conference's biggest knockout artist, and still construct a nine-point second-half lead in the place where Pitt has won 20 games in a row probably is. If Pitt is the team nobody wants to play in a tournament, Marquette is merely another, even if that 90-75 final arithmetic invites some other interpretation.
When you've accomplished as much this season as Pitt has -- such as an unprecedented 14 Big East victories -- it's hard to figure out what the exact significance of any individual performance might be. But the win last night means the Panthers are the proud owners of a double bye, the coveted bye-bye in the conference tournament that tips off next week in Gotham.
A loss to Marquette might have meant waving bye-bye to the bye-bye, and, for all their sustained excellence, the Panthers flirted with exactly that.
"No, you don't ever think you can get beat," said Panthers sophomore Gilbert Brown, who slashed Marquette's defense for five baskets and 11 points in working 30 minutes off the bench. "You have to realize that basketball is a game of runs and, when someone comes back on you like Marquette did tonight, you just have to be comfortable with your team, with the way you play defense, the way you play offense.
"You just have to know that eventually, we'll be back in the game and we'll have a chance to win it."
How exactly Jamie Dixon's team knows that likely has to do with its 28-3 record and its clear shot at a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but it has a lot to do with how relentlessly elemental Pitt is with the basketball.
Eight of its first nine field goals last night were layups, and, after Marquette had established that it was completely unimpressed, Pitt force-fed it more of that very thing.
"I thought with 11:50 left, we were right where we needed to be," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. "Then, from 11:50 to about 1:50, we could not make a basket, and everything they made was in the paint. They're the best team I've ever coached against in the middle of the [shot] clock in the middle of the paint."
It is even a trifle ironic or just one of those annoying fun facts that no one should ever bother to mention that Pitt technically gets zero points in the paint at home. The lane, the archaic term that "the paint" replaced because it was generally painted a different color than the rest of the floor, is the same color as the rest of the floor inside the Pete.
In any case, whatever you want to call the area occupied by Pitt's incredible DeJuan Blair, opponents would likely suggest the killing fields, because that's where they're getting killed night after night after night.
In this one, Blair scored 23 points, 12 at the line, the place he goes because he's virtually unstoppable. He got nine rebounds, just missing his 18th double-double, not to confused with the bye-bye.
"Coach Dixon was just going back and forth about how we had to lock it down," Blair said of the revived defensive effort that launched Pitt into a 32-8 run in the game's final minutes. "We had to start playing good defense again. Everyone just clamped down."
That Pitt wound up shooting 63 percent, and 41 percent from behind the arc, will obscure what a struggle this prelude to Connecticut was. There were five ties, the last at 61-61, and six lead changes.
Even if Blair seems to consider every question something either to be avoided or joked about -- he characterized the Saturday's looming Connecticut rematch as the next episode of "Celebrity Death Match" -- he knows just as surely that Pitt has now run out of games in which it can play with fire.
Welcome to the divine madness.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.