Ten years ago Friday, on March 15, 2003, Pitt won the Big East Conference tournament for the first time. The enduring image from that 74-56 victory against archrival Connecticut was provided by senior point guard Brandin Knight.
Pitt led by 14 with 1:30 left. Everyone in Madison Square Garden in New York knew the Panthers would hoist the tournament trophy at center court, but Knight wasn't taking any chances.
Not after championship game heartbreaks the past two seasons, including an excruciating double-overtime loss to the Huskies 12 months earlier when Knight was hobbled with a knee injury.
The Huskies rolled the ball inbounds after a Pitt basket in desperate hopes of delaying the start of the clock. But Knight wasn't in the waiting mood.
Knight darted in from midcourt, dived on the floor, grabbed the ball and called a timeout.
"It was a defining moment in a sense that, for me, it kind of epitomized how bad I wanted to win that game," said Knight, who played at Pitt from 1999-2003 and has been part of Jamie Dixon's coaching staff since 2006. "It meant that much to me that we closed that game out the proper way.
"With about 10 minutes to go, we had a lead. I told those guys, especially the seniors, 'This is the last time some of us might have an opportunity to play on that floor. The last two years we walked out of here with our heads down, in tears.' There was no way we were going to leave Madison Square Garden with a loss. All of those guys gave maximum effort. It was one of those things when we weren't going to be denied. Not on that day."
Knight's hustle not only exorcised his own personal championship-game demons, it ended years of frustration for Pitt fans at the tournament.
Pitt had known nothing but disappointment at the Big East tournament for its first 18 years as a member of the conference. Charles Smith and Jerome Lane led the Panthers to regular-season championships in 1987 and 1988, but they fell in the tournament semifinals two years in a row.
From 1990-2000, the Panthers failed to get past the quarterfinals. Pitt never won more than one tournament game in any season. In 2001, the Panthers won three games in three days to finally reach the championship.
The tournament starts tonight. Pitt, which has a double bye, will compete in its final Big East tournament before moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Knight and others who have been around the program the longest shared their Big East tournament memories.
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Jamie Dixon, assistant coach 1999-2003, head coach 2003-present.
"It catapulted us forward. We got to the championship game 12 years ago. We weren't very good. We upset Notre Dame and Syracuse. We got blown out by Boston College, but we had won three or four games in our [tournament] history before that. We won three games that year. From that point on, we started winning games. Since then, we've had the best record in the conference. I remember that because it got people excited about our program, or woke them up about our program a little bit. We started selling tickets.
"And for me, personally, it's always been a place when my family gets together. My parents and my sisters would always come, my friends from high school and college. It's been like a family reunion for us. I don't have a lot of family in Greensboro [N.C., the site of the next three ACC tournaments], so it will be different."
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Brandin Knight on Pitt's 2008 championship.
"Levance [Fields] is like my own child. To see him be able to celebrate the same way I did and having a chance to cut down the nets after losing one the year before, that was special also because, as a coach, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing all the blood, sweat and tears come to fruition, to see the championship banner dropped on our home court, to see those guys celebrate and say they had one and left their legacy as far as Pitt is concerned.
"When you win championships on the biggest stage ... there is no other conference tournament that can amount to what the Big East has been. I grew up a part of the Big East since my brother was a ball boy at Seton Hall. This is all I have known. To be able to win championships as a player and coach, they will be the most special memories when I look back."
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Tony Salesi, head athletic trainer since 1986.
"The two times we won, they let me be the last one to cut the net down both times. Those are big memories for me. One of the biggest awakenings for me -- and [athletic director] Steve Pederson tells this story -- we were in the locker room Brandin's sophomore year [in 2001], when we went to the finals. I was like a giddy kid. I was like, 'I can't believe we're going to the finals.' [Former coach] Ben Howland sort of put me in my place. He said, 'We're going here to win. It's not about being here.' I learned a valuable lesson: You play to win the game, as Herm Edwards said. In all the years I had been there, I never felt like I sniffed it. It was a great experience.
"When we won it, I can't tell you how exciting it was. We were riding back on the bus, I had the net on my neck. I was sitting in my room and I had the net around my neck in my room. It was great. It was a great experience."
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Brian Regan, director of basketball operations since 2008 and a graduate assistant from 1988-90.
"I can remember when I was a G.A. in 1990, a Syracuse fan was yelling, 'NIT Pitt, NIT' when we were losing to them at the Big East tournament. I was like, I wish we could get into the NIT. That was the year Sean [Miller] was hurt and Darelle [Porter] was running the point. We were still pretty good, but we couldn't get enough Big East wins to get into the NCAA tournament or the NIT. I think we were below .500.
"It's human nature to love the tournaments you win. To be here in 2008 and winning those games was big. I just remember the excitement of that championship game. The guys had played so well. Sam Young had stepped up so big. Levance did the same thing. We really came together as a team. One game when we were struggling shooting the ball, Ronald Ramon stepped up and hit a couple of 3s. It was exciting playing Georgetown in the finals. They had a good team with Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green. That was a fun a memory."
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Bill Hillgrove, Pitt's radio play-by-play man since 1969.
"When Pitt won the first Big East crown in 2003, we beat Connecticut pretty handily. Dick [Groat] and I go back and get our coats and we're walking toward the escalator. Jim Calhoun is getting interviewed by, I presume, a Connecticut TV station. He stopped the interview and he turned. He said, 'Dick, Bill, congratulations.' It showed a side of Jim Calhoun that not a lot of people see. But then it sunk in that we're on top of the hill here for the first time after a lot of years of frustration."
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Dick Groat, Pitt's color commentator on radio broadcasts since 1979:
"I remember vividly when we got to the final [in 2001] and walking into the Garden, telling Bill on the way in that I didn't know how those kids were going to be ready to play the game after what they gone through. We came out like gangbusters against Boston College and then all of a sudden, they pulled the plug and we died. The players were physically drained. That was a disappointment. Then we won it two years later. For a team that was one-and-out for so long, it was great. We had great fun getting to the final."
"When you win championships on the biggest stage ... there is no other conference tournament that can amount to what the Big East has been."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1. First Published March 12, 2013 4:00 AM