Jermaine Dixon is Panthers' tough guy

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This Pitt win doesn't ease the awful pain from the previous time Pitt and Villanova played a basketball game. It will be a long time -- if ever -- that anything makes up for Villanova's 78-76 win in the 2009 NCAA tournament, which denied Pitt its first trip to the Final Four in 68 years. "That's a game we'll be seeing forever," Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon said.

In their worst nightmares.

Still ...

"This one feels pretty good," Dixon said with just about the biggest grin you'll ever see on a college kid's face.

Pitt's 70-65 win Sunday at the Petersen Events Center was significant for reasons that go beyond the fact it came against No. 3 Villanova. It left the third-place Panthers just a game behind Villanova and two games behind Syracuse in the Big East Conference standings. It made Pitt the first team this season to beat three Top 5 opponents, counting earlier wins against No. 5 Syracuse and No. 5 West Virginia. And it gave Pitt a 10th league win, leaving no doubt -- as if there were any -- that the Panthers will be extended an NCAA tournament bid March 14 for the ninth consecutive season.

Those are wonderful team accomplishments, but I want to take a minute this morning to talk about one player.


"He's our leader," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It's his team. We follow him."

The win meant everything to Jermaine Dixon.

The kid blamed himself for that crushing defeat in March because of a late turnover and a defensive lapse that led to Villanova's great Scottie Reynolds scoring the winning layup at the buzzer. He said he thought Pitt had a chance to win the national championship and he blew it for seniors Sam Young, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs and for DeJuan Blair, who was headed for the NBA.

"I wanted to win this one for those guys," Dixon said.

Turns out one of those fellas wanted it pretty badly, too.

"I talked to Levance at 3 a.m. this morning," Dixon said. "I couldn't sleep. He's [playing] in Russia. We talked on the computer."

Fields is a big reason Dixon came to Pitt. "He was my favorite point guard when I was at junior college," Dixon said. In their early morning conversation, Fields told Dixon to play hard. He also probably told him to make life miserable for Reynolds, surely the Big East Player of the Year.

That's just what Dixon did.

Pitt's team defense deserves enormous credit. It held Villanova -- the second-highest scoring team in the country -- to 20 points below its season average. The Wildcats had scored at least 70 points in 23 of their 25 games.

Dixon's work against Reynolds was the biggest part of that. Thanks in part to first-half foul trouble that forced him to sit for nine minutes, Reynolds had just three points when Dixon took a breather with 12:27 left in the game and Pitt leading, 39-34. After Reynolds made consecutive 3-point shots with Panthers freshman Travon Woodall trying to guard him, cutting Pitt's lead to 42-40, Jamie Dixon sent Jermaine Dixon back in for the final 10:02. Reynolds scored 11 more points, but five came in the final 7.2 seconds after the game was decided.

"I think he was a little frustrated," Jermaine Dixon said. "He was looking for calls."

That was evident with 20 seconds to go when Pitt led, 64-60. Reynolds tried to drive by Dixon but ended up pinned on the baseline and his shot hit the bottom of the backboard. He immediately looked to the officials for a foul call that didn't come. Then, he looked at Villanova coach Jay Wright, who shrugged.

This wasn't Reynolds' day.

This was Pitt's day.

This was Dixon's day.

It seems strange to say a guy who shot as poorly as Dixon did Sunday was the best player on the court, but that's exactly what Dixon was. He made just 3 of 15 shots, although one was a 3 that gave Pitt a 48-40 lead with 7:15 left. The time will come when the Panthers need more offense from him, certainly in the Big East tournament and then in the NCAAs. But on this afternoon, they needed only his terrific defense against a guy who is at least in the conversation with Kentucky's John Wall and Ohio State's Evan Turner as national Player of the Year candidates.

"Three of 15, I don't like those numbers," Jermaine Dixon said. "It wasn't my night shooting. I would like 'em all to go in every night, but that's not going to happen. But I'm never going to stop playing defense."

That's what Jamie Dixon loves about the kid.

"I've spoken all year long about how valuable he is to us," the coach said. "Our guys believe in Jermaine Dixon. He gives us confidence. He's our toughest guy. Tough guys make other guys tougher."

They also make a team better than its top-to-bottom talent would indicate. Don't look now, but that Big East regular-season title isn't the only thing in sight for Pitt. A Top 10 ranking isn't out of the question. The No. 19 Panthers -- thanks to this win and one at Marquette Thursday night -- should make a big jump when The Associated Press poll is released today.

The importance of toughness for this Pitt team can't be overstated.

Jermaine Dixon's toughness, in particular.

Ron Cook: . 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. First Published February 22, 2010 5:00 AM


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