Cook: Mike Cook gets cookin' after long drought, saves day for Pitt

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Of all the things that went wrong for Pitt yesterday against Washington -- more bad shooting, a rare butt-kickin' on the boards, little offensive production from four of the five starters and, of greatest significance, a potentially crippling ankle injury to senior center Aaron Gray -- one thing went so right that the Panthers were able to sneak away with a 65-61 win.

Mike Cook showed up to play.

Finally.

There are other reasons Pitt won, for sure. It committed just six turnovers after having 16 in the first half of that ugly home loss to Louisville Monday night. It turned Washington's 16 turnovers into 21 points. It had a decided home-court edge at the free-throw line, shooting 25 shots to Washington's eight. And it got 24 points from its bench, including 11 from Ronald Ramon and 10 from Sam Young.

But there's no doubt Pitt wouldn't have won without Cook's big game, which included 15 points, four offensive rebounds, a couple of assists and a steal. It's also indisputable that Pitt -- tied for first place with Georgetown in the Big East Conference with a 10-2 record -- will have its best chance to win the league's regular-season title, do well in the conference tournament and go deep in the NCAAs if it gets similar production from Cook, its most athletic player, in the days ahead.

That's assuming Gray is OK, of course.

He went down in a pile, clutching his left ankle after getting tangled with teammate Levance Fields and Washington's Jon Brockman fighting for a rebound with 10.2 seconds left. He limped badly to the locker room after the game.

Concern was etched on coach Jamie Dixon's face when he delivered the sobering postgame news that the injury could be serious.

"I hope I'm wrong ... I hope I'm wrong," Dixon said.

All Pitt fans should have that same wish this morning because Pitt would be a very ordinary team without Gray.

It's unfortunate that Gray's injury hovers over Pitt -- which has a game at Seton Hall tomorrow night and a huge one at Georgetown Saturday -- because Cook deserves to be the talk of the town today. His play through the first half of the season was huge in Pitt climbing as high as No. 2 in the national polls. But then a baffling thing happened. After scoring 18 points in an impressive home win against Georgetown Jan. 13, Cook went into a terrible slump. He averaged 6.4 points in the eight games before yesterday after averaging 11.9 in the first 18. He shot 39.2 percent in those eight games after shooting 54.2 percent earlier. A slasher, he stopped getting to the free-throw line.

Pitt wasn't nearly the same team.

"That's why I was so down on myself," Cook said. "I know as I go, the team goes."

Sure, maybe that's a stretch.

But Cook -- if he's right -- certainly helps.

It was bad enough for Cook having to look Dixon, Gray, Fields and the others in the face after his 1-for-7 shooting night at West Virginia and his 0-for-7, zero-point night at Villanova.

But those darn cell phone calls ...

"My family and friends would call and ask, 'What's wrong? Why aren't you playing better?' " Cook said.

You might guess the next line.

"I'm looking forward to those calls tonight," Cook said, grinning.

Why not?

It wasn't just Cook's points and his 6-of-11 shooting. It was his timing. His reverse layup off a great pass from Gray led to a 3-point play and cut Washington's early lead to 20-18. Moments later, he hung in the air to score after another drive to the basket to pull Pitt within 23-20. He then got Pitt started fast in the second half by scoring on each of its first three possessions and throwing in a couple of offensive rebounds to boot.

"When you're not shooting well, it's going to affect you no matter how confident a player you are," Cook said. "It really took its toll on me. I just tried to stay aggressive. Everybody kept telling me the shots would start to fall."

Surprisingly, Dixon wasn't effusive when asked about Cook. Maybe it was all those things that Pitt didn't do well, including its 4-of-15 shooting from 3-point range and Washington's 42-32 rebounding advantage. Or maybe it was Gray's situation. More likely, though, it was that he realizes how much ability Cook has and he expects so much more from him.

"We need more rebounding from that spot," Dixon said. "He had four offensive rebounds, which is good. But he had no defensive rebounds. We need to improve in that area."

OK, point accepted.

Cook has to rebound better.

But at least this game was a positive step for the kid.

Pitt needed every bit of Cook's offense on a day its other four starters combined to shoot 7 of 31.

Pitt will need every bit of it the rest of the way.


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


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