Cook: Pitt merits high praise from Orange's Boeheim

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Levance Fields knows the deal, knows why some people believe his Pitt team is overrated just a bit as the 10th-ranked team in America. He watches college basketball on television. He hears the ESPN analysts say the Panthers don't have the go-to scorer they need to win big games, not just in the Big East Conference, but when it counts the most, in March, at NCAA tournament time.

"We feel like everybody on our team is a go-to guy," Fields said. "We think that makes us even more dangerous."

That thought was echoed last night by no less than Syracuse's Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim after Fields, Antonio Graves, Mike Cook and Ronald Ramon took turns making huge shots down the stretch in Pitt's 74-66 win at the Carrier Dome in the teams' Big East opener.

"They've got more guys now who can shoot it from the perimeter," Boeheim said. "I always thought that was their weakness. [Carl] Krauser always made shots against us, but they didn't have anyone else to step up. Now, they have other guys who can step up and shoot it. To me, that's what makes them so much better than last year."

Pitt always has to win, first and foremost, with its defense and rebounding. Coach Jamie Dixon demands it. Ben Howland did before him as Pitt's coach. There's no other way to get it done in the rugged Big East.

But it will be so much easier for the Panthers if they continue to make a lot of their shots at crucial times. Fields made a 3-point shot last night to break a 40-40 tie and another to give Pitt a 58-49 lead on his way to a career-high 24 points. Graves hit a 3-pointer from deep in the right corner off an inbounds pass for a 63-58 lead. Cook drove the lane for a layup and a 65-58 lead. Ramon made a 3 for a 68-62 lead.

"It's all about the passing," Dixon said. "We're always telling our guys to give up a good shot to get a great shot. I can remember once tonight when Ronald could have shot from in front of our bench. He had an open shot and he's a good shooter, but he kicked it back to Levance for a better shot. That's what we want."

The result was a sweet win.

This isn't a typically strong Syracuse team -- it's unranked, already has lost four games and is woefully undisciplined on offense -- but, as a happy Dixon noted, the Carrier Dome is "as tough as any place in the country to play."

In other words, Pitt will take the victory and try to build on it.

"It's nice to get that first one on the road to get us rolling," Fields said.

It didn't take long to see that Fields wasn't going to let Pitt lose. He played poorly in the Panthers' home win against Syracuse last season, then stunk up Madison Square Garden in their loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament championship game. He shot 0 for 4 that night -- 0 for 3 on 3s -- and didn't score.

"That definitely hurt me," Fields said. "It was hard on me all offseason. I was hyped for this game."

Syracuse gave Fields the opening he was hoping for when it concentrated its defensive effort on stopping Pitt center Aaron Gray (9 points).

"We left Fields a little too open a few times, and he made us pay," Boeheim said, shrugging.

Fields made 5 of his 7 shots in the second half, including three of four 3-pointers. Twice, he converted steals into fastbreak layups. He makes Pitt significantly better when he gives it that kind of offense.

"I'm trying to be more aggressive down the stretch, but A.G. [Gray] still is our go-to guy," Fields said.

It was another A.G. -- Graves -- who probably made the game's biggest shot, that 3-pointer after Dixon drew up a play for him during a timeout with 5 seconds left on the shot clock. Fields was so mesmerized by Graves' shot that he didn't remember giving him the ball.

"Did I pass it to him or did you?" he asked Ramon.

"I don't remember doing it. I was worried about the shot. The pass was the easy part. He had to make it."

Graves did.

They won't always fall like that. Doesn't Dixon wish?

But if enough keep going in, Pitt will be hard for any team to beat.

And no one will say it is overrated.

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon yells to his team in the second half last night.
Click photo for larger image.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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