Pitt Basketball: Big East memories

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Pitt is set to play its final season as a member of the Big East Conference. After 30 years, the Panthers are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The program has enjoyed many memorable moments since joining the Big East in 1982. The Post-Gazette sports staff has identified its top 10. They are listed here in chronological order.

Let the debates begin.

January 25, 1988

Four words are all one needs to recall this iconic moment in Pitt basketball history: "Send it in Jerome!" That was the spontaneous reaction of ESPN analyst Bill Raftery after Jerome Lane shattered the backboard at Fitzgerald Field House with a thunderous dunk against Providence. "I was trying to slam it as hard as I could to impress the crowd," Lane said after the game. Kimball Smith, a sports information assistant with Pitt at the time, checked with the backboard manufacturer and said 940 pounds of force was needed to shatter the backboard.

On the 20-year anniversaryof the dunk in 2008, Lane said that play has defined him over the years, and he does not regret it. "It gets brought up 10, 20 times a year," Lane said. "I don't get a chance to live it down. They don't talk about me as a basketball player, as this great rebounder. They don't know me as someone who played in the NBA, just Pitt. When they see me, it's, 'You're the guy who had The Dunk.'"

Lane's memorable dunk also made a prophet of teammate Demetrius Gore, who had penned a rap song "Pitt on the rise" a year earlier that included this verse: Getting all the rebounds like he is insane is that board-crashing brother Jerome Lane. The 1987-88 season saw the Panthers win 24 games and claim the Big East regular-season title. Yet the regular-season game in January that Pitt won by 34 points is what everyone remembers. That and Barry Goheen's shot that sunk the Panthers NCAA tournament title hopes two months later. But that's in a top 10 list of another sort.

March 6, 1988

Pitt won a share of its first Big East regular-season championship in 1987 when the Panthers shared the title with Syracuse and Georgetown. The next year they wanted it all to themselves. They accomplished that feat thanks to a dominating performance from Lane in the regular-season finale at Syracuse. Lane scored 29 points and grabbed 15 boards in an 85-84 victory that clinched the title. The Panthers finished the regular season with a 12-4 Big East record while Syracuse finished 11-5.

Lane was coming off of a couple of bad games against Boston College and Seton Hall and had been called out by coach Paul Evans for his inconsistent play. Lane scored 18 of his 29 points in the first half, including a stretch when he scored 12 consecutive points. What made the performance even more remarkable was that he picked up his third foul with 2:36 remaining in the first half and his fourth foul with 13:48 left, and never came out of the game.

Syracuse had been able to limit Lane in a Syracuse win at the Civic Arena a few weeks earlier, but Orange coach Jim Boeheim had no answers for Lane's brilliance in this game. "The last two games we controlled him," Boeheim said. "Today, we had no control at all. He got what he wanted."

March 7-10, 2001

Rarely does a loss at the end of conference championship week make a top 10 list, but Pitt's unlikely run through the Big East tournament to its first Big East tournament championship game appearance is one of the most important moments in school history.

In their second season under Ben Howland, the Panthers had stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the West Division. They beat Miami in the first round of the tournament and then upset No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the quarterfinal round. In the semifinals, they pulled another upset, this time in overtime against Syracuse. It was only the second time in the history of the Big East tournament that a team won three games in three days to advance to the championship game. Dreams of a berth in the NCAA tournament came to an end the next night when Boston College beat the weary Panthers, 79-57.

Point guard Brandin Knight, a sophomore in 2001, points to that week at Madison Square Garden as a turning point for the program. But no one, it seemed, became a believer in the Panthers after their performances on Broadway. The Big East coaches viewed it as a fluke. They chose the Panthers to finish in sixth place, or dead-last, in the conference's West Division before the next season. The players believed, however. They won the West Division with a 13-3 record for Pitt's first regular-season championship since 1988.

The season began a decade of dominance for the Panthers and was the first of 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament. Knight, now an assistant coach on Jamie Dixon's staff, said it wouldn't have been possible without that magical, confidence-boosting week in March 2001.

March 15, 2003

Playing on an injured ankle, Knight and his teammates washed away years of frustration at the Big East tournament when the Panthers claimed their first Big East tournament championship with a 74-56 victory against Connecticut. It was the third consecutive tournament title game appearance for the Panthers, and they avenged a double-overtime loss to Connecticut from the previous year. Jaron Brown had 19 points and 10 rebounds.

Knight added 16 points and made the game's signature play. With Pitt leading by 14 points and 1:30 on the clock, Connecticut rolled the ball inbounds after a Pitt bucket. Knight darted from the other side of the court, dove at the ball, tipped it away and came up with the possession. The hustle play signified Pitt's approach to winning under Howland. They Panthers did it with defense, intangibles and leadership.

December 20, 2007

Down by 16 points to one of the country's top programs, Pitt came back to beat Duke, 65-64, when point guard Levance Fields sank a step-back 3-point shot with four seconds left in overtime in a game played at Madison Square Garden. After he made the shot, Fields jumped into the arms of coach Jamie Dixon. It was an emotional win for both. Just 32 seconds into overtime, starting small forward Mike Cook, Fields' best friend, left the game with a season-ending knee injury. Not only was Cook out, but so was freshman center DeJuan Blair, who fouled out late in regulation after scoring 15 points and grabbing 20 rebounds.

The victory against the No. 6 Blue Devils did not come in an NCAA tournament, but it means a lot to Dixon. He believes the game is one of the most important in the program's history. He chose it -- not Pitt's victory against Xavier in the 2009 NCAA tournament that got the Panthers to the Elite 8 -- as his most significant win at Pitt. "If I had to pick one, it would have to be the Duke game," Dixon said in a 2010 interview. "And solely because of the opponent. They are, to me, the program you have to emulate. They're the gold standard in college basketball. It was a regular-season game, but it was a great statement for our program."

March 15, 2008

Pitt returned to Madison Square Garden three months after its milestone victory against Duke and forged one of the great weeks for any team in the history of the Big East tournament. A week after the Duke game, Fields suffered a serious injury of his own when he fractured a bone in his foot in a loss at Dayton.

Without two starters, the Panthers stumbled to a seventh-place finish in the conference standings and had to win three games in three days to advance to the championship game against the No. 1 seed Georgetown Hoyas, who had pounded the Panthers in the championship game a year earlier. The Hoyas had never lost in the Big East tournament as the No. 1 seed. But the Panthers had revenge on their minds and got 17 points from senior Ronald Ramon and 16 from Sam Young, who claimed the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award after a 74-65 victory.

Pitt became the second team to win four games in four days at the Big East tournament, and Fields and Cook celebrated at center court by crying in each other's arms.

February 16, 2009

This night will be remembered for DeJuan Blair's flip of Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet onto his head when they battled for a rebound, but the game was important for many reasons. Pitt's 76-68 victory against the Huskies was the first-ever for the Panthers against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. They had been 0 for their previous 13 in such games, including 0 for 3 against arch rival UConn.

Blair's flip of Thabeet came in the opening moments and set the tone for the game. Blair finished with 22 points and 23 rebounds while Thabeet completed the game with just five points and four rebounds. The Panthers dominated from a physical standpoint, grabbing 48 rebounds to Connecticut's 31. It was the first time all season the Huskies were outrebounded. "They played a style of basketball that we hadn't seen all season," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "And it was a style that was effective against us."

As much as this game is remembered for Blair and his theatrics, the victory would not have been possible without the heroics of two seniors. Young scored a game-high 25 points on 8-for-13 shooting and Fields nailed two big 3-pointers late in the game. The first broke a 61-61 tie, and gave the Panthers the lead for good.

March 7, 2009

The final game of the '09 regular season was perhaps the most-anticipated regular-season game in school history. Nineteen days after the Panthers beat top-ranked Connecticut in Hartford they played host to the Huskies at the Petersen Events Center with a chance to make history. After winning at Connecticut, the Panthers lost a game at Providence, and the Huskies ascended to the No. 1 ranking again in time for the rematch. The Panthers rose to the occasion before a raucous home crowd and became the ninth team in the history of college basketball to beat the No. 1 team twice in the same season when they won, 70-60.

Sam Young scored 31 points for a total of 56 against the Huskies, who would go on to win the national championship a few weeks later. "Sam Young is something special," Calhoun said after the game. "We've seen him twice, and there hasn't ever been a player that gives us as many problems as he does."

Young and his teammates did it before 12,908 fans, the largest crowd to witness an on-campus basketball game at Pitt. The victory also led to another first in school history: Two weeks later the Panthers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

March 26, 2009

Time after time, Fields made clutch shots for the Panthers, and Pitt's senior point guard made one last big one in a 55-54 victory over Xavier in a Sweet 16 game at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. The victory exorcised the demons from Pitt's previous four forays into the round of 16 and vaulted the Panthers to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1974.

The No. 1 seed Panthers were in dire straits against No. 4 seed Xavier. They trailed by two after blowing a five-point lead with five minutes remaining. Fields took matters into his hands. He dribbled between his legs, got his man leaning and let loose on a deep 3-pointer. "I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots," Dixon said. "He's made them year after year."

Fields did not shoot 3-pointers for a very high percentage, but it was always Fields -- not future NBA players Blair and Young -- who had the ball in his hands at the end of games that season. "It was a ball screen and I couldn't turn the corner," Fields said. "I did a little in and out move to get him on his heels a little bit. Once I did that and created some space I had all the confidence in the world that it was going to go in." Pitt's Final Four dreams ended two nights later when No. 3 seed Villanova beat the Panthers, 78-76.

Feb. 12, 2010

Pitt's most improbable victory as a member of the Big East Conference came against Backyard Brawl rival West Virginia in a contest the Panthers had no business winning. The Panthers trailed the Mountaineers by seven with 45 seconds remaining. West Virginia missed three free throws in the final minute to help the cause, but the Panthers made plenty of clutch plays to complete the comeback.

After Tray Woodall cut the lead to three with 29 seconds remaining, the Panthers forced a turnover when Brad Wanamaker saved a ball from going out of bounds as the Panthers pressured the Mountaineers. The ball was retrieved by Woodall, who passed to Ashton Gibbs in the corner for a 3-pointer that tied the score with 22 seconds to go. Forcing overtime alone made this game one of the most memorable in school history, but what transpired in the overtime periods made the contest epic. Gibbs, an 87 percent career free-throw shooter, missed a free throw with seven seconds left in the first overtime, which allowed West Virginia's Darryl Bryant to come down and nail a game-tying 3-pointer as time expired. In the second overtime, Gary McGhee fouled DeSean Butler when he was attempting a 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining. Butler made all three foul shots to force the first three-overtime game for Pitt since 1976.

In the third overtime, Pitt finally finished the job. Gilbert Brown scored the go-ahead points on two free throws with 28 seconds left and Gibbs sealed the victory by making two free throws with 11.8 to go. "Without a doubt it's the greatest game I ever played in," Brown said afterward. "It was the greatest comeback since I've been at Pitt."

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First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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