NEW YORK -- Pitt did something last night that hadn't been achieved before in the 28-year history of Big East Conference basketball. The Panthers beat Marquette, 68-61, in a semifinal matchup to advance to the championship game for the seventh time in eight seasons.
Pitt (25-9) will face Georgetown (27-4) in the championship game at 9 p.m. today. Georgetown beat Pitt in the title game a year ago. The Panthers beat the Hoyas Jan. 14 at Petersen Event Center in the only regular-season meeting between the two teams this season.
No other team in the history of the Big East has had a sustained run of success like the Panthers have since 2001. Connecticut and Syracuse are the only schools to rival the Panthers, but they never did seven title games in eight years. The Huskies got to the title game eight times in a 10-year span from 1995-2004. Syracuse made the title game eight times in an 11-year span from 1980-1990.
The victory last night was Pitt's 18th in its past 24 Big East tournament games.
Pitt has won only one of those previous six title games, a victory against Connecticut in 2003. This year's edition of the Panthers would like to finish the job and avenge other championship game losses, especially a 65-42 drubbing Georgetown gave them last season.
"This is more than a game [today]," Pitt senior Keith Benjamin said. "This is for everything. This is for all the years we didn't win it. This is my last chance playing these guys. I want to go out with a win. It's time to get it done." Said junior point guard Levance Fields: "It's time to cash in and get this championship."
The Panthers avenged an 18-point loss to Marquette that occurred Feb. 15. That loss was one of the low points of the season for Pitt. The victory in front of a sellout Madison Square Garden crowd last night was one of the season's highlights.
It was Pitt's sixth victory in the past seven games and proves the Panthers have become a much different team since Fields returned to the lineup full time. The only loss in the past 21/2 weeks came at West Virginia.
Pitt's defense continues to be the story. The Panthers held Marquette to 31-percent shooting. It was the third time in three games here that the Panthers held their opponent to less than 40-percent shooting.
In the final eight regular-season games, every opponent shot more than 40 percent.
Pitt was in control of the game from the beginning, but the Panthers had to withstand a furious comeback in the second half. Pitt led by 16 with 18:09 remaining, but Marquette trimmed the lead to three with 1:20 left before the Panthers pulled away at the end.
"That's just the fight in them," Benjamin said. "They have a great team, great guards. Those are three great guards. We knew the run was coming. You just have to withstand those runs. This is a game of runs. If you're a great team you're going to make a run, and they made a great run. They got it closer than we liked, but when it came down to it, Levance made the right play. He got fouled and knocked down the free throws to give us the cushion."
Each team had one of their best players in foul trouble. Marquette's leading scorer Jerel McNeal picked up his fourth foul with 16:07 remaining in the game. McNeal still scored 17 points, but he only played 26 minutes.
Without McNeal for long stretches, the Golden Eagles went cold on offense. They went 11:42 without a field goal from midway through the first half until early in the second half. In that span, they were 0 for 16 from the field and had six turnovers.
"It was a key," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of getting McNeal in foul trouble. "I liked the way we got them. We took some charges. We earned it."
Pitt freshman center DeJuan Blair could only play nine minutes because of constant foul trouble. He scored two points and had three rebounds.
But Pitt made up for Blair's absence with some outstanding play from Fields, Sam Young and Ronald Ramon. Young scored 22 points, going 9 for 14 from the field. Ramon had 14 and Fields 12, including some crucial free throws down the stretch when nobody else on the team cared to make one.
Pitt shot 49 percent from the field, which helped offset a 47-32 disadvantage on the boards. The Panthers also shot terribly from the free-throw line, enabling the Golden Eagles to creep back into the game. The Panthers were 16 for 28 from the line.
The Panthers hung on by the skin of their teeth, but the bottom line is they are once again playing for the championship. This time they are hoping for a grand send-off for their seniors.
"It would mean a lot, especially being a senior," Ramon said. "Every single player on the team is talking about doing it for the seniors. Nobody is celebrating.
"We're just trying to get focused and prepare for the next game. We're glad we're in the championship game, but it's time to go out there and play our best basketball on the last day of the tournament."