Mental errors once again Pitt's undoing

The Aftermath 2011 NCAA Tournament


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WASHINGTON -- It wouldn't be so sad if it weren't so ironic.

Two NCAA tournament games in three seasons decided with less than a second remaining. Both games looking as if they would go to overtime, but ultimately ending in heartbreaking losses.

Gilbert Brown played a key role in how both games ended. Brown was on the free-throw line Saturday night with 1.4 seconds remaining and a chance to send Pitt to the Sweet 16, but he missed a free throw. When Pitt lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight in 2009, it was Brown who was the last man standing between the basket and a driving Scottie Reynolds. Brown chose not to jump and contest the shot in fear of fouling. Reynolds made the shot that knocked the Panthers from the tournament.

Perhaps subconsciously, Nasir Robinson was thinking of the passive approach the Panthers displayed in the final seconds of the Villanova game when he went after Brown's missed free throw and fouled Matt Howard of Butler with .8 seconds left on the clock and the score tied.

Howard made one free throw to give Butler the upset victory, 71-70, against the No. 1-seeded Panthers. It is the second time in three years the Panthers were a No. 1 seed and failed to reach the Final Four.

Two end-of-game situations and two vastly different reactions from Pitt's players. It seems no matter what Pitt does in close NCAA tournament games it cannot come out on top. Last season, the Panthers had two opportunities at 3-point attempts in the final seconds to send an NCAA second-round game against Xavier into overtime, but neither shot fell.

So are the Panthers snakebitten? Or are they putting themselves in difficult positions by not playing well through these NCAA tournament games?

The plays at the end of the games against Butler and Villanova are magnified because they are the lasting images, but the Panthers made costly mental errors in the final minutes of both to help Butler and Villanova come out on top.

In the loss to Butler, the Panthers had several costly miscues that came back to haunt them. They had a one-point lead and possession of the basketball with less than a minute remaining. With the shot clock winding down, Robinson received an entry pass on the blocks. Instead of attempting a shot, Robinson passed to Gibbs behind the 3-point line, and Gibbs could not release the ball before the shot clock expired.

On Butler's next possession, with less than 10 seconds remaining, the Bulldogs got a layup when Shawn Vanzant drove past Brown. Gary McGhee came over to help Brown, and Vanzant passed to Andrew Smith, who scored with 2.2 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a lead.

In the Villanova game two years ago, costly turnovers helped defeat the Panthers. They held a four-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes to go before Jermaine Dixon committed a turnover and fouled, leading to a three-point play.

Jermaine Dixon made another mistake when he allowed Reynolds to catch a pass in stride in the final seconds and get behind him.

Jamie Dixon was asked about the disappointing NCAA tournament losses Saturday night in the aftermath of the Butler game. He said the Panthers have to work harder to reach their first Final Four since 1941.

"We just have to keep working harder and keep having great years and keep putting ourselves in the position that we're in," Dixon said. "And we just have to keep doing that. That's what we'll do and that's what we have done.

"Obviously, [Saturday night's game] is disappointing, but I'm proud of how hard we played and proud of what we did. I'm proud of how we fought back and battled some adversity. We had some foul trouble. Got some leads. Had some baskets taken away from us. I was really happy with how our guys battled."

In addition to the suspect late-game execution, the Panthers put themselves in a close game by not playing well in the early stages of the game against the Bulldogs. Butler shot 52 percent from the field in the first half and made eight 3-pointers, which staked the Bulldogs to an eight-point halftime lead.

The Panthers came back to take a five-point lead in the second half, but it was the fourth time in the final seven games that they had a halftime deficit to overcome.

"We lost the game in the first half with mental lapses defensively and things like that," Brown said.

"We didn't lose it on one play," Dixon said. "We have to take care of business all the way through. And that's where getting down early hurt us. We played very well in the second half but came up short."

For Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee it was the final games of their college careers, which made the loss sting all the more.

"It comes down to the plays we didn't make in the game," Brown said. "It hurts all the same. And it hurts even more because it's our last game. We know we'll never be able to put on the jersey again and go out there and play with our teammates. Everybody on the team is like family, so this being the last game is really an emotional blow for us."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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