NEW YORK -- There was a time not all that long ago when Pitt could plan on staying the week in Manhattan during the Big East Conference tournament. Seven times in an eight-year span, the Panthers played in the conference championship game, winning it twice.
But those days seem like eons ago to the players who had their heads down in the locker room Thursday night after the 50-45 loss to Notre Dame in a quarterfinal. For the second year in a row, the Panthers made an early exit from the tournament they owned earlier in the decade.
"It hurts to be one-and-done two years in a row," junior center Gary McGhee said.
"We had a chance to win the game. We just didn't execute when we needed to."
"It feels bad," junior forward Gilbert Brown said.
"Someone has to win and someone has to lose, but you hope that's not you. The last couple of years with the early exit after the first game, it feels different from my first few years when we were always in the championship game and winning games here."
What made the loss more difficult to swallow was the manner in which it came. Pitt was held to its lowest scoring output of the season, but the Panthers twice had a chance to tie the score or take the lead in the final minute.
With Notre Dame leading, 47-45, and 40 seconds left on the clock, Brad Wanamaker beat his defender on a drive to the hoop, but missed a layup.
The Panthers were able to tie-up Notre Dame on the rebound and got possession again. With 20 seconds remaining, Jermaine Dixon drove to the hoop and missed badly after taking an off-balance shot.
Those two shots summed up Pitt's woeful offense in the second half. The Panthers were 6 for 20 from the field after halftime and scored 16 points.
For the game, Pitt only shot 38.5 percent (17 for 44) from the field. Notre Dame, meanwhile, was much more efficient.
The Irish shot 53 percent (18 for 34). They only made 5 of their 13 shots after halftime, but they did not need much because the Panthers were equally inept with their shooting.
"We missed a lot of shots we normally make," Brown said.
Notre Dame never had been accused of playing good defense under coach Mike Brey, but the Irish have held five of their past six opponents to 54 points or fewer.
Pitt finished the regular season as the top defensive team in the conference and is usually comfortable in low-scoring games. But the Irish beat the Panthers at their own game.
"I don't call it frustrating," coach Jamie Dixon said.
"You have to be prepared and understand what they're doing. You know it's going to be low-scoring. You know it's going to be a low-possession game. You know it's going to be a close game. It was those few possessions [at the end]. It kind of went as you might expect.
"We were in position to win the game."
Notre Dame did an especially good job of shutting down Ashton Gibbs, Pitt's leading scorer. He was held to four points and attempted four shots.
"It was tough to get open," Gibbs said. "I missed some opportunities. I had a couple of easy shots I didn't take."
In addition, the Irish did not allow McGhee to score. The Panthers got 13 points total from their frontcourt -- eight from Nasir Robinson, three from Brown and two from reserve center Dante Taylor.
Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson thought his team's patient offense frustrated the Panthers and forced them out of their element when they did get the ball.
"Sometimes, they come down and rush it," Jackson said.
"Then they have to get back and guard again. If they miss, it makes it more aggravating and more frustrating for them."
Notre Dame led, 32-29, at halftime. In the second half, both teams combined for 11 field goals. Each team had one field goal apiece in the final 5:31.
"It's different playing against a team like that," Brown said.
"We usually slow the tempo down against the faster teams. They were holding the ball until eight seconds on the shot clock every time they had the ball. It probably prohibited us from getting into the offensive flow that we wanted."
The Panthers became the third team with a double bye in the tournament to lose Thursday. No. 1 Syracuse lost to No. 8 seed Georgetown and No. 4 seed Villanova lost to No. 5 seed Marquette earlier in the day.
Pitt must wait until Sunday to see which team it will play in the NCAA tournament's first round. The Panthers are expected to be a No. 3 or 4 seed.
"We want to win the Big East regular season, we want to win the Big East tournament every year," Brown said.
"But the most important thing is we always want to go deep into the NCAA tournament.
"That's our goal from the beginning of the season, and there's still so much more that we can accomplish."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230. First Published March 12, 2010 5:00 AM