Emotion was everywhere Sunday inside Petersen Events Center. An enthusiastic sellout crowd celebrated senior day and the final home game for the Panthers as members of the Big East Conference.
A thrilling 73-64 overtime victory brought the vociferous 12,553 in attendance to a perfect crescendo as the final buzzer sounded, which signaled the end of an era, and perhaps a new beginning for two struggling Panthers who broke out of long slumps to send senior teammates Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor out as winners in their final game at Petersen Events Center.
The emotion flowed over into the postgame news conference. Taylor choked back tears trying to express how much the victory meant to him. That got freshman point guard James Robinson and Woodall, seated next to him, teary-eyed as well.
"The first thing I'll remember about this day was our seniors," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who also fought back tears when he addressed reporters after the game. "I've talked the last couple of weeks about the steps they've taken. They've brought this team along. They've made that commitment. To have them play so well, to have Tray hit Dante for a dunk at the end and to get a chance to take them out with a win, I don't know how it could have been any better. I'm just proud of those guys."
There was plenty more to remember about this victory. If his seniors were foremost in his mind, the clutch performances from Robinson and junior forward Talib Zanna could not have been far behind.
Robinson sent the game to overtime with a tying 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in regulation. Then in overtime, Zanna put the team on his back, scoring nine of his 14 points in the extra period to complete the comeback.
Robinson's heroics capped a big second-half rally for the Panthers, who trailed by nine with 16:45 left. It was not the first time Robinson came through in a critical situation for the Panthers. He has made clutch plays all season, but it had to sting Villanova coach Jay Wright that Robinson converted the tying shot because he had not made a 3-pointer in the previous seven games.
"Every shot I take, I think it's going to go in," said Robinson, who had missed his past eight attempts from behind the 3-point arc. "It was good to knock one down, especially at the time it happened."
Dixon was not the least bit surprised about Robinson's shot. Though he entered the game shooting 29 percent from 3-point range, Robinson already has made a habit of making big shots. He made a late steal and layup in Pitt's overtime win against Oakland. He was clutch again when he sank two late free throws at Providence, and he came through with a 3-pointer that broke a tie late in a victory against Connecticut.
But this shot was the most impressive considering the circumstances.
"Everyone who has watched him this year knew that was going in," Dixon said. "That's a good feeling to have. I'm glad he's on our side."
It also had to be a good feeling for Dixon to watch Zanna come to life again. His enigmatic power forward played with a passion that had been missing from his game.
In addition to his 14 points, Zanna pulled down a career-high 19 rebounds, the most rebounds in a game for a Pitt player since DeJuan Blair had 23 in 2009 at Connecticut.
More importantly, Zanna broke out of a long scoring slump. He had reached double figures once in the previous 13 games and his inability to finish around the basket was hurting Pitt's offense.
Zanna was 4 for 8 from the field and 6 for 7 from the free-throw line. He scored the first seven points of overtime to spark the Panthers.
"I knew I had it in me," Zanna said. "I was just waiting for my time. I'm just going to try to pick it up from here."
But as Dixon noted, in the end, this game was about the seniors. With the victory in hand, Woodall corralled a rebound and found Taylor streaking to the basket for a dunk with seven seconds to go.
The two seniors fittingly combined for the final points of their final home game.
Dixon then was able to pull Woodall and Taylor from the game with just under a second left, sending them off with a loud ovation from the crowd.
"It was the perfect way to close the chapter on a great home career," Woodall said.
NOTES -- Taylor started for the first time this season in place of injured freshman Steven Adams, who could not play after injuring his left ankle Saturday in practice. Dixon said after the game he expects Adams to be ready for the regular-season finale Saturday at DePaul. ... Pitt is alone in fourth place in the conference standings, a half-game ahead of Syracuse and Notre Dame. ... Woodall had 13 points and 11 assists for his first double-double of the season. ... Ryan Arcidiacono led Villanova with 23 points.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 4, 2013 5:00 AM