One bad night cost '88 team its legacy
Darelle Porter, the last City League player to play for Pitt until DeJuan Blair this season, has stayed in the area. He takes in one of the WPIAL playoff games this month.
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The bitter memories of Pitt's overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the 1988 NCAA tournament remain fresh in Charles Smith's mind.
He is reminded frequently of the Panthers' epic collapse against the Commodores in the second round of the Midwest regional in Lincoln, Neb.
The 80-74 setback was one of the most stunning defeats in school history.
"You try to move on, but it always comes up," said Smith, a regional director for the NBA Players Association who is pursuing a master's degree in management at Seton Hall. "The talk always focuses on all the chaos, how the game ended."
Despite their disappointing finish, the Panthers compiled a 24-7 record and were ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press poll. They won their first outright Big East regular-season title with a 12-4 mark, beating Syracuse, 85-84, in the final conference game of the season at the Carrier Dome.
The 1987-88 Panthers will be honored today during Pitt's game with Louisville at the Petersen Events Center.
Darelle Porter, formerly the head coach at Duquesne University and current director of the Ozanam basketball program for city kids, is looking forward to seeing some of his old teammates.
"Our class has stayed very close, and I'm happy we're going to get a chance to celebrate in front of the Pitt fans again," he said.
Against Vanderbilt two decades ago, heavily favored Pitt had taken a 67-63 lead with 12 seconds to go when guard Jason Matthews hit two free throws. Vanderbilt's Barry Goheen quickly raced down the floor and hit a 3-pointer to draw the Commodores within one.
After Smith sank two free throws with four seconds left to put the second-seeded Panthers up, 69-66, Goheen hurried downcourt again and made a tying 3-pointer from 25 feet at the buzzer to force overtime.
Although it lost Will Perdue, a future NBA first-round draft pick, to fouls, Vanderbilt dominated the overtime. Goheen, who won seven games in his career with last-second shots, was the hero with a game-high 22 points.
Afterward, Pitt coach Paul Evans said he had told his players to foul Goheen on the final drive of regulation, but many of the Pitt players disputed Evans' claim then and now.
"That's when I realized that we didn't have a coach," said Smith, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds in his final game. "We should have never let [Goheen] shoot that 3-pointer. We should have fouled him."
John Calipari, a Moon native and Pitt assistant during the 1987-1988 season, is coach of top-ranked Memphis today. He admitted "there was some turmoil that season, but the kids fought through it."
Smith, a 6-foot-10 senior center, was the third overall pick in the 1988 NBA draft. Jerome Lane, a 6-6 junior power forward and rebounder extraordinaire, was the 23rd player selected despite coming out a year early.
"Jerome and I made a pact when I was junior," Smith said. "He said, 'You're playing high post, so, when you get the ball on the perimeter, you shoot, and I'm not going to complain.' On the other hand, he said, 'If there's a rebound, don't get near me.' "
Porter, a guard who attended Perry Traditional Academy, prefers to remember the good things from the 1987-88 season.
Pitt started 9-0 and climbed to No. 2 in the polls in early January, around the same time forward Rod Brookin was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the year.
"I have fond memories of that season, even with the way it ended," Porter said. "You always think coulda, shoulda, woulda, but there's nothing you can do about it now. We had a great year."
Lane, who has worked for the city's recreation department in Akron, Ohio, the past six years, has told Pitt officials he plans to return to campus today for the first time in 17 years to take part in the 20-year reunion ceremony. Matthews will be there, too, as will forward Bobby Martin and others.
Point guard Sean Miller, coach of No. 10 Xavier, swingman Demetreus Gore, Smith, Calipari and Evans -- who was fired by Pitt after the 1993-94 season and has not coached at the college level since -- will not be in attendance.
Pitt's 1987 freshmen class of Miller, Porter, Matthews, Martin and forward Brian Shorter was widely regarded as the best in the nation. FOXsports.com ranks it among the top 25 recruiting classes of all time.
Miller, from Blackhawk High School, had an immediate impact. He was named the Big East freshman of the year.
"I won the award because nobody bothered to guard me," Miller said. "I was the guy that you just said, 'If anyone's going to beat us, let him beat us, because those other guys are too good.'
"It's been 20 years, which is hard to believe, but it's very meaningful to invite a team back like Pitt is doing, because winning a championship is so special. I tell that to my guys [at Xavier] all the time."
Matthews started 23 games as a freshman and averaged 8.0 points. Porter made eight starts. He played in all 31 games, as did Martin. Shorter did not score high enough on his Scholastic Aptitude Test and was ineligible to play that season.
"You had a group of freshmen who matured and became great players and great friends," Calipari said. "Not only that, all five of them graduated, and they led Pitt to a lot of wins."
Matthews, from Los Angeles, is fifth on Pitt's all-time scoring list with 1,840 points. He decided to make Pittsburgh his permanent home when his career ended. He is an entrepreneur who lives minutes away from the heart of the Pitt campus.
"I had a lot of fun playing basketball here, and I've met a lot of great people in this town over the years," Matthews said. "I have season tickets and go to most of the games. I've been on the Pitt alumni association board for four years now. It's a great way to give back to the young students what was given to me."
Smith, whose No. 32 jersey is retired, started all 122 games in his four seasons at Pitt, then played 10 years in the NBA. He is the Panthers' all-time leading scorer with 2,045 points.
Lane, one of only four Pitt players to record 1,000 points, 600 rebounds and 200 assists, spent five years in the NBA.
Shorter, Gore, Martin and Miller remain among the top 20 scorers in school history. Yet, despite a wealth of talent, the 1987-88 Panthers have a tainted legacy.
"I think everyone would agree that was one of Pitt's most talented teams ever," said broadcaster Bill Hillgrove, who has been calling the Panthers' games on the radio since 1969. "They had everything -- height, shooting, defense, All-Americans and a super freshmen class.
"I'm not criticizing Paul Evans, but, if that team would have played with the same cohesiveness that the Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon teams have played with, I think they would have won the whole thing."
First Published February 24, 2008 12:00 am