Cook: Pitt will need to have plenty of fight

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NEW YORK -- More than an hour after the game Thursday, Pitt's Dante Taylor finally walked out of the X-ray room at Madison Square Garden, the wound on his right eyelid still seeping despite six stitches. His wasn't the only Pitt blood spilled on this day. Steven Adams' uniform was caked from a gash on his right knee from a tumble on the hard wood during a pursuit for a loose ball. Pitt officials sifted through the grisly remains in their locker room but emerged to say there were no concussions or broken bones.

It would be nice to report the other guys looked worse, but they were saved by the bell. Although Syracuse stars James Southerland and Brandon Triche came out of their locker room with ice bags on both knees and appeared to be in some distress, they survived Pitt and the hand-to-hand combat under both baskets to fight another day. They will play Georgetown tonight in the first Big East Conference semifinal.

Good luck to Syracuse after what it had to spend to take down Pitt, 62-59, in a game that was pure Big East in terms of ferocity and physicality.

Give Pitt credit for, if nothing else, making its final Big East game memorable. When it trailed Syracuse by 13 points early in the second half, it was hard to imagine the Panthers being in position to tie the score. But Talib Zanna missed a free throw with 30.1 seconds left and Pitt down, 58-57. Then James Robinson, who has been so steady all season as a freshman point guard, threw the ball away with 13 seconds left and Pitt trailing, 60-57. Syracuse, which played Wednesday against Seton Hall while Pitt rested thanks to earning a tournament double bye during the regular season, staggered on those weary legs but held on. It was just its fifth win in its past 19 games against Pitt.

Too bad the players on both teams needed the ice bags. Many in the Garden crowd could have used one after watching the type of game that long has made the Big East the toughest conference in college basketball.

"It hurts. It hurts a lot right now," Robinson said.

That feeling hung heavy in the somber Pitt locker room. There might not have been any serious injuries, but there was plenty of battered and bruised pride.

This was Robinson's first and only Big East tournament. He will play in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament next season after Pitt makes the move to its new league. You might imagine how hard senior Tray Woodall took the loss. He has been a part of five Big Easts. You might guess it wasn't Taylor's favorite day, as well. His game consisted of little more than two fouls in a span of 67 seconds in the first half and that whack to the eye midway through the second half, which hurt even worse when the perpetrator wasn't called for a foul.

Like I said, typical Big East basketball.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, among many, is going to miss it. If he said it once, he said it dozens of times and did so again Thursday. "The Big East has made our program."

First, coach Ben Howland for four seasons, then Dixon for the past 10, used the conference and the fact its tournament is in Madison Square Garden -- a hallowed building unlike another other -- to recruit talented New York City area players. They, indeed, made Pitt a national program even if it doesn't have a Final Four appearance to offer as proof.

Dixon will remember the sting from this final loss for a long time. Early exits from the Big East tournament have, suddenly, become an annoying trend for Pitt, which went to the final seven times in eight years from 2001-08. This was the fourth time in the past five years Pitt lost its first game after getting the double bye.

"In this league, the double bye means you're going to play a top-20 team," Dixon said. "You can't afford to play a bad first half like we did."

Dixon was at a loss to explain how Pitt played so poorly when it fell behind, 40-27. He talked of "defensive breakdowns" and "mental mistakes." Syracuse shot 53.3 percent in the first half and made 8 of 13 3-point attempts. It finished the half by making 11 of 12 shots, including all six of its 3-pointers. Southerland, who missed Pitt's 10-point win against Syracuse Feb. 2 at Petersen Events Center because of academic suspension, made all five of his 3s in the first half, including two, Dixon said, on a play that Pitt knew was coming but still couldn't defend.

"We all knew he can shoot," Woodall said of Southerland. "He was just unconscious out there."

The second half was much different. Pitt regained its equilibrium and took the fight to Syracuse. It held Syracuse to 35.3 percent shooting. It held Southerland to three shots, although he made his only 3. It outrebounded Syracuse, 26-10.

Pitt just came up short.

"That was our team in the second half. That's how we play," Dixon said.

We'll see in the NCAA tournament.

Pitt will learn the path it must travel Sunday when the field is announced. The guess here is Pitt will get a No. 6 seed, which would be its lowest since it was a No. 9 in 2005 and lost its first game to Pacific in Boise, Idaho. Starting in 2006, Pitt was seeded 5, 3, 4, 1, 3 and 1 before missing the tournament last year, ending a 10-year run.

Maybe this will be the year Pitt wins an NCAA tournament game and goes on to beat a higher-seeded opponent for the first time.

Robinson made no predictions but said, "I'm 100 percent confident we'll fight back from this."

That's assuming Pitt has any fight left.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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