Cook: Pitt hits wrong switch, and it's lights out

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NEW YORK -- Pitt center Gary McGhee is 6 feet 11, 250 pounds of all man, but he felt pretty small as the seconds ticked toward 0.0 on the Madison Square Garden scoreboard Thursday afternoon. Caught in a defensive switch that was either poor coaching by Pitt's Jamie Dixon or, more likely, poor execution by Dixon's players, McGhee had the impossible task of trying to cover Connecticut All-American guard Kemba Walker with Pitt's stay at the Big East Conference tournament and, possibly, its No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on the line. Walker faked this way, faked that way, faked this way again. "I kind of buckled," McGhee said afterward. Actually, he fell down, virtually separated from his XL shorts. Walker leaned back and hit the wide-open shot from the top of the key at the buzzer to win the game, 76-74, and, just like that, everybody connected with Pitt suddenly was saying the NCAAs is the only tournament that really matters.

What else were they going to say, you know?

"We didn't get this one, but it's extra motivation," Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said. Moments later, he was so motivated that he all but guaranteed the Panthers will make the Final Four.

I still believe it's possible.

Call me crazy.

Pitt did a lot of terrific things Thursday. A slow-starting club much of the past month, it made 9 of its first 11 shots and built a 23-11 lead. It shot 55.1 percent for the game, including a ridiculous 72.7 percent (8 of 11) on 3s. It was spot-on from the free-throw line again, making 12 of 14.

Do those things, you win most games. Not this game, though.

Pitt had 11 turnovers -- not a bad total -- but those mistakes led to 20 points for Connecticut. "An unbelievable number," Dixon said. "We made some careless passes, and that's what got them going."

Pitt was outrebounded by seven (32-25) and allowed Connecticut to get a staggering 17 offensive rebounds. On seven of Connecticut's final 11 possessions, it had multiple shots. That dominance on the boards is a big reason Connecticut was able to get to the free-throw line 25 times. "We're not built to be outrebounded and still win," Dixon said.

Part of the problem was McGhee's foul trouble, which limited him to 18 minutes. "I'll be honest, it helped us," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "I'm a big McGhee fan for all of the small things that he does."

A bigger problem was Pitt's want-to. For some reason, it wasn't there. That's inexcusable. "We didn't make the effort to block out," McGhee said. "I know, when I was in there, I didn't do a good job rebounding." He had two, if you are counting.

Those are concerns Dixon should be able to solve. Heaven knows practice time won't be an issue after Pitt was bounced home from here after just one game for the third consecutive year, this time as the top seed and league regular-season champion. Dixon thinks Pitt still deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament -- "One game doesn't change what we did in the other 31" -- but I'm not so sure. Regardless of a No. 1 or a No. 2, Pitt figures to be sent to Cleveland for its first two NCAA games, beginning Friday.

But a full week might not be enough time to fix Pitt's major weakness. It doesn't have a guard who can stop a big-time player from penetrating off the dribble. We saw it when Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough went for 19 points -- many at the end of the shot clock -- in a 56-51 Irish win in January at Petersen Events Center. We saw it again with Walker at the end of the game.

Gibbs had a marvelous offensive day with 27 points but is hardly a shutdown defender. He never tried to check Walker. That job fell mostly to Brad Wanamaker or Travon Woodall. Dixon will tell you they did well to hold Walker to 8-of-22 shooting, even though Walker made 8-of-9 free throws. Walker said he had plenty of good looks but just missed shots. I'm going with Walker on this one.

With about 25 seconds left, Walker blew by Wanamaker on a drive down the lane but missed the shot, which was rebounded by teammate Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. (Of course). After a Connecticut timeout with 18 seconds to go, Wanamaker locked on Walker again but quickly was screened by Coombs-McDaniel. Instead of trying to fight through it, he nudged McGhee on Walker. Then, instead of switching back when Walker paused to reset, Wanamaker stuck on Coombs-McDaniel. He was worried about that kid beating Pitt? Bad decision. There's no way Wanamaker should have left McGhee on Walker in that helpless, hopeless situation.

"You get a sick feeling in your stomach when the shot goes in," McGhee said.

"I'll take the blame for that one," Dixon said.

Good for him. That's what a coach is supposed to do. But this time, it was hardly necessary. Plenty of Pitt fans already were putting the blame on him. Despite incredible regular-season success in his eight seasons at Pitt, he'll be scrutinized, second-guessed and criticized until he gets Pitt to a Final Four.

Silly me, I'm right there with Gibbs, thinking this still could be the year.

Unless Pitt runs into a Hansbrough or a Walker at the end of a close game, that is.


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


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