Pitt has fallen short of advancing past the Sweet 16 in its previous seven trips to the NCAA tournament. Now the Panthers will attempt to solve the tournament from a different perspective -- from the top.
With last night's 90-75 victory against Marquette, the Panthers are all but assured of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
No. 3 Pitt (27-3, 14-3) is No. 1 in the RPI heading into Saturday's regular-season finale against No. 1 Connecticut, and according to Joe Lunardi, who projects the NCAA field for ESPN, the Panthers took the final step needed in securing a No. 1 seed last night.
Lunardi said yesterday afternoon that the only way the Panthers could have lost a No. 1 seed was if they lost three consecutive games going into the NCAA tournament. The come-from-behind victory against the Golden Eagles nullified that possibility.
"Clinching the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is big," sophomore center DeJuan Blair said. "There are a lot of great teams out there. We've been swapping No. 1. To be on top of just about everyone in the NCAA is big."
The Panthers also kept their Big East regular-season championship hopes alive. They can claim a share of the conference title with a win against Connecticut and if Louisville loses Saturday night at West Virginia.
Pitt, which set a school record with 14 regular-season Big East victories, has won 20 consecutive games at the Petersen Events Center and can finish the season with a perfect home record with a win against the Huskies.
Blair, showing no ill effects from the knee he hurt in Saturday's win against Seton Hall, led the Panthers with 23 points and nine rebounds. Four other players scored in double figures, and Pitt got two other stellar performances from their seniors.
Point guard Levance Fields had a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists, and Sam Young had 18 points and 8 rebounds.
Pitt, which led by 10 on three occasions in the first half, had a 43-36 lead at halftime, but Marquette opened the second half on a 21-5 run and took a 57-48 lead with 15:59 remaining after a Jerel McNeal 3-pointer. Marquette made 8 of its first 10 shots to open the half.
Pitt stormed back with nine consecutive points in a little more than a minute to tie on a 3-pointer from Fields with 14:31 left. Marquette retook the lead, 61-60, but the Panthers then seized control with a 23-4 run and outscored the Golden Eagles, 30-14, over the final 11:51.
"You never want to be down by nine, but we were missing wide open shots," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's having confidence in your system, your players. If you continue to do things right, things will eventually fall your way."
Five players scored points in the spurt with Fields getting 10 and reserve forward Gilbert Brown contributing seven. After Brown made the score 85-65 with 3:05 remaining, the sellout crowd began chanting "We want UConn."
Blair echoed the crowd afterward.
"We want UConn," Blair said. "It will be the same as last time. It'll be a celebrity death match."
It was a breakout game for Brown, who had scored in double figures only twice previously in Big East play. He had 11 points and three rebounds and three assists.
"Gilbert and I talked today," Dixon said. "I think he can give us so much. He can make us a better team. He was very patient and played smart. He was big, and we need that from him."
Pitt shot 63 percent from the field and began to physically dominate midway through the second half. The Panthers scored 44 points in the lane and put the pressure on Marquette on almost every possession to defend the low post.
"They were dominant, physically dominant during that 10-minute stretch," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "We couldn't get stops."
NOTES -- Fields received treatment for a bruised tailbone after falling hard to the ground after making a layup in the second half. ... Blair said he did not have any pain in his left knee. ... The Panthers were 7 for 17 from 3-point range and 15 for 23 from the free-throw line. ... Pitt won the rebounding battle, 33-28. ... McNeal led the Golden Eagles with 23 points. He was 4 for 12 from 3-point range. The Golden Eagles were 10 for 26 from behind the 3-point line, but they missed their final eight attempts.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com. First Published March 5, 2009 5:00 AM