Collier: Pitt happily will look forward to NCAAs

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NEW YORK -- As we hear way, way too often this time of year, it's important to be peaking at the right time, but thankfully for Pitt's interests in the NCAA tournament that starts this week, the inverse is equally as true.

It's important to be reeking at the right time as well.

If Pitt's performance at Madison Square Garden last night was just a stunning spasm of atypically awful basketball to be quickly flushed into the Hudson River and forgotten, this Game of the Reek probably came at the right time. If whatever afflicted the Panthers in a shooting display rarely seen outside the Bronx School For Boys With Dreadful Depth Perception is guaranteed not to re-occur, then Pitt's probably glad it happened in Gotham and not in whatever NCAA outpost the bracket masters assign them to tonight.

In the previous century, which is to say before the Pitt Panthers became the Washington Generals of the Big East championship game, Pitt would make cameo appearances in the tournament's big show around mid-week and devolve to a reliable afterthought by the weekend.

Those bad old Big East days never included the kind of disappointment Pitt aches with today. These are rightly called Pitt's glory years, but someone needs to remind the post-modern Panthers that while six appearances in the conference title game in the past seven years is a remarkable accomplishment, actually winning it now and again might prove an amusing novelty.

Instead, Pitt is 1-5 in the big game, but this one won't require a lot of analysis.

How to put it? Well, at least Pitt didn't shoot itself in the foot. Had the Panthers tried converting that cliche, they would have hit the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. With five minutes remaining, some small white paper hearts began floating out of the Garden seating area. They must have come from the Pitt section, as none went anywhere near the basket.

"Nothing seemed to go right offensively," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who would have made the tournament's all-obvious team if such a thing existed. "We had good shots early, but didn't knock 'em down. This was not a good team to get behind against."

Oh yeah, the other team was Georgetown. Not that it would have mattered.

By halftime of the Georgetown Massacre, Aaron Gray, Levance Fields, and Antonio Graves were a combined 0 for 13 from the field, with Gray's nine misses all coming within 10 feet of the rim. At the merciful end, those three Pitt starters and the Panthers' best bench marksman, Ronald Ramon, were a combined 6 for 34.

The Hoyas, by almost laughable contrast, hit 15 of their first 27 shots and streaked to a 32-17 halftime lead, fatter than the 11-point bulge Louisville lost in a hail of second-half turnovers against Pitt Friday night. There was no second-half surge in Pitt's arsenal this time though, as Gray didn't get a bucket until 10:56 remained in the game. It came on his 11th attempt. He finished 1 for- 13.

"Just one of those days," Dixon said in Gray's defense. "It happens all the time; it happens to all teams. Georgetown just lost to Syracuse and look how good they played tonight."

If Gray's shooting touch was merely frightful, his defensive performance against Georgetown's Roy Hibbert was positively terrifying. Hibbert, one of the rare conference players bigger than Gray at 7-2, ate Gray's lunch, his dinner, and his midnight snack. He spun around Pitt's 7-footer, hooked over him, and ultimately outscored him, 18-3, and outrebounded him, 11-5. Against Notre Dame a night earlier, Hibbert had six points.

That the final arithmetic was laced with embarrassing historical trivia -- Pitt's 42 points were the fewest in a game since 1969 for example, and the 23-point loss as bad a whipping as Pitt had gotten in the Big East tournament -- the first issue for Dixon this week will be to break out the psychological salve, a product to which these particular Panthers always have seemed receptive.

"Not at all," Antonio Graves said to a question about whether Pitt would have any more difficulty getting over this loss, given its almost shameful dimensions. "We are going to definitely have to put this behind us and look ahead. We have another tournament coming up which is the most important tournament. It's what all the teams prepare for in the summer and prepare for in the offseason. We have a couple of games coming up that we have to take seriously, and we have to use practice this week to get this out of our heads and look forward to the future."

Happy Selection Sunday everybody. The Panthers likely will look forward happily to whatever destination awaits. Is there a place out there where the hoops are bigger?


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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