Pitt's McGhee feel-good story of year

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The early feel-good story of the year in Pittsburgh sports clearly is the Pitt men's basketball team, which has overcome overwhelming odds and just about the toughest competition in the rugged Big East Conference to build a 5-0 league record. But there's a feel-great story within that surprising Pitt success and it begins with a chant that started in the Oakland Zoo Saturday afternoon and rolled through the Petersen Events Center during the game against Louisville.

"Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!"

I'm not certain sweeter sounds have been heard in that basketball palace.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon preaches constantly about the importance of hard work and unselfish play. Junior center Gary McGhee is the epitome of both. "The perfect teammate," guard Brad Wanamaker called him.

It's wonderful to see good things happen to a kid like that.

McGhee is hardly a star, but Pitt would not be 15-2 and knocking on the door of the top 10 without him. He had the difficult challenge this season of taking over in the post for All-American DeJuan Blair, who, you might have heard, is showing off his game quite nicely in the NBA. He hasn't backed down from it, giving Pitt a big body and a better-than-expected physical presence inside as a defender and rebounder. He has come a long way from the guy who picked up three fouls in one second at Connecticut last season and promptly became known to his playful teammates as "Guinness Book Of World Records." He was huge -- literally and figuratively -- with 8 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in Pitt's stunning 67-57 victory in its return trip to Connecticut Wednesday night.

"It didn't intimidate me replacing DeJuan because I played against him every day in practice and I knew my game was right up there," McGhee said after Pitt's throbbing 82-77 overtime victory Saturday against Louisville. "He was one of the best rebounders in college basketball history and I held my own with him. I knew if I could rebound against him, I could rebound against anyone in the country. I knew I was ready to play in the Big East."

McGhee's game is hardly pretty. He has much work to do to become even a competent offensive force. "I'm trying to finish better when the ball's dumped off to me," he said. Blair's hands are so much better than his, although McGhee had no trouble grabbing a rebound after a missed shot by Wanamaker in overtime Saturday and laying it in the basket to give Pitt a 76-72 lead.

Those two critical points were nice, but that's not what Pitt counts on getting from McGhee. Clearly, he knows his role. "Defense and rebounding are what win championships," he said. "Getting a stop for me on defense is just as good as a dunk."

Louisville center Samardo Samuels -- "As good a post player as there is in the country," Dixon said -- had 25 points against McGhee and backup Dante Taylor but needed 20 shots to do it. He also had just two offensive rebounds. As Wanamaker said, "He scored 25 points, but they probably were the hardest 25 he's gotten all year."

Wanamaker and McGhee have been roommates for three years. "Many times, he's woken me up in the morning and said, 'Let's go to the gym,' " Wanamaker said. "A lot of times he practically carried me there. He's made me work hard."

That's why Wanamaker and Dixon have no doubt that McGhee will continue to work on his offensive game. In the meantime, they love that he is happy to contribute to the team by playing defense, rebounding, blocking or altering shots and setting screens.

"He doesn't force things, which isn't always easy for a player," Dixon said. "I think he's been great for us. He's always going to be compared to DeJuan, but he can handle that."

It won't get any easier for McGhee. It never does in the Big East. "Monroe is next," he said of Georgetown star Greg Monroe, who will play at Pitt Wednesday night in what should be another dynamite game. "I'll try not to let him get 25 points."

There's no doubt McGhee will make the effort. Pitt fans love how hard he tries. In that sense, the great Blair has nothing on him.

"Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!"

The chant began late in the first half after McGhee blocked a shot by Samuels, hustled to grab the loose ball, dribbled to start a fast break and threw a perfect pass to teammate Nasir Robinson for an uncontested layup. It was an impressive sequence of athleticism from a guy who's known more for his bulk and strength.

It is worth writing one more time:

"Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!"

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com . First Published January 18, 2010 5:00 AM


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