Pitt beating WVU was 'unbelievable'

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It wasn't the greatest Pitt-West Virginia game of all time. That would be Pitt's 13-9 football win in Morgantown Dec. 1, 2007, a date that will be celebrated forever in Oakland and live in infamy in West Virginia.

It wasn't even the best basketball win at the Petersen Events Center. That would be Pitt's 70-60 victory against Connecticut last season because there's nothing quite like beating the No. 1 team in the country, especially when it's UConn.

Still, Pitt's epic three-overtime win Friday night was terrific. Years from now, at least a few hundred thousand people will claim to have been at The Pete to see it. And the place holds not quite 13,000.

Those who were lucky enough to be in the grand building will never forget it. Those who left when Pitt trailed by seven points with 49.5 seconds left in regulation will never get over it. And those who didn't have a ticket or see it on television, well, they missed something very special.

When it finally ended shortly before midnight and Pitt's 98-95 win was secured, coach Jamie Dixon had to fight his way through the bedlam to the locker room, high-fiving the delirious students in the Oakland Zoo who make the place such a wonderful venue for college basketball. Perhaps prompted by a pregame scoreboard reminder from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to protect their spotless reputation, the kids were wonderful all night. There were no reprisals for the ugly incidents in the student section at West Virginia Feb. 3 when the Mountaineers thumped Pitt, 70-51. The Pitt students were loud. They had fun. They rocked the arena. And they practically willed the Panthers to the win.

OK, so they weren't all kids.

Was that really Steelers kicker Jeff Reed on the court leading cheers in the second half?

Just another part of a surreal night.

It's no wonder Dixon emerged later from the locker room and kept muttering the same word.

"Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Unbelievable ... "

Yes, it was.

This wasn't the first time that Pitt crushed the Mountaineers at the Petersen Events Center. Remember Ronald Ramon's winning 3-point shot in 2008, still the only buzzer beater in the building's eight-year history? But this was different. This one stung a West Virginia team that came in ranked No. 5 and likes to think it is a national championship contender.

Unbelievable ...

Start with that comeback at the end of regulation, which Pitt made without its best player, Jermaine Dixon, who had fouled out with 49.5 seconds to go. Sure, the Mountaineers helped by missing three free-throw attempts in the final minute. But Pitt still needed a late steal from Nasir Robinson and a huge 3-point shot from Ashton Gibbs to send it to overtime.

About that time, the people in the parking lots who had left early must have been sick to their stomach. And they soon would get sicker.

"My team played with a lot of heart," freshman guard Travon Woodall said after the best game of his brief Pitt career.

The Panthers hung together after blowing a five-point lead in the first overtime. They didn't get down after a good shot by Woodall was waved off at the end of the second overtime because it came an instant after the clock hit 00.0. They survived in the third overtime despite losing Woodall (12 points, six assists) and Brad Wanamaker (24 points, 10 assists) to fouls.

"We were almost out of guys, but we found a way," Jamie Dixon said.

That effort is what makes this Pitt team so appealing. You look at it on paper, there's probably no way it should be 8-4 in the brutal Big East Conference, not after losing four starters from last year's 31-5 team that went to the Round of 8 at the NCAA tournament. But it is. This win didn't just come against a hated rival. It should have secured a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament bid for Pitt, barring a complete collapse in the final six regular-season games.

And, to think, the West Virginia students were serenading the Pitt players with an "N-I-T" chant just nine days earlier.

"I truly believe this team can be better than anyone else thinks it can be," Jamie Dixon said. "I think we can become very good. That's what we're working very hard to do."

It doesn't get any easier for Pitt. It never gets easier in the Big East. A game at Marquette Thursday night is followed by another at home against No. 4 Villanova Sunday followed by another at Notre Dame Feb. 24.

But as tough as those games will be, they can't be any tougher than trailing a very good, very tough, very experienced West Virginia team by seven points with 49.5 seconds to play.

And, as Dixon noted, Pitt found a way.

"I know [the fans] really like this team," he said. "They've been surprised by what we've done. Now, they want more from us. We want more. This was a great win for us, but I know we can play better."

Only a week to that next game at The Pete against Villanova.

Already, I can't wait.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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