Panthers' late collapse basically hands Hoyas regular-season title
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Matt Freed, Post-Gazette photos
The Pitt bench watches the last minute of play in their loss to Georgetown Saturday.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Big East championship was there for the taking.
Pitt had an eight-point lead at Georgetown with 11:56 remaining and celebrated during a timeout. The Panthers performed chest bumps at center court after a Ronald Ramon 3-pointer capped a 16-3 run and gave the Panthers a 44-36 lead and seemingly all the momentum in the world.
As it turned out, the celebration was a tad premature. Georgetown capitalized on a bundle of Pitt mistakes in the waning minutes and stormed back to beat the Panthers, 61-53, at the Verizon Center.
For all intents and purposes, No. 12 Georgetown (22-5, 12-2) clinched the Big East regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that begins next week. The only way Georgetown can lose the top seed is if it loses its final two games and Pitt wins its final two.
No. 10 Pitt (24-5, 11-3) headed home feeling like it let one slip away. Senior forward Levon Kendall said the Panthers lost some focus when they got the big lead.
"We got excited there a little early," Kendall said. "We were trying to calm the guys down. There were still 11 or 12 minutes to go. Obviously, a team that good was going to make another run."
It was quite a run for Georgetown to close the game. The Hoyas outscored Pitt, 25-9, over those final 11-plus minutes. They made steals, tough shots and their free throws to claw back into the game and eventually take the lead.
Pitt, meanwhile, had trouble doing much of anything right down the stretch. The Panthers were 2 for 17 from the field, 2 for 6 from the free-throw line and had five of their 13 turnovers in the final 11:56.
"We were up eight and we thought we had them on the ropes," sophomore point guard Levance Fields said. "We've had a lot of leads during the year. We've won some games and we've lost some games. We have to learn how to put teams away when we have the lead. In that situation, we could have put them away."
The loss had Pitt coach Jamie Dixon scratching his head afterward. Pitt took 20 more shots than Georgetown, had fewer turnovers and grabbed 22 offensive rebounds.
"How often does a team take 20 more shots than a team and turn it over less and come out on the short end?" Dixon asked. "We outrebounded a team by six, had fewer turnovers and we made more baskets, yet we got beat at the free-throw line by 14 points. You can't have that in a road game."
Pitt was 8 for 16 from the free-throw line; Georgetown was 22 for 29. That statistic, more than anything, led to the Panthers losing for the first time on the road in Big East play this season. That and the fact the Panthers shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the field.
The fact that Pitt was in position to win was somewhat of a surprise, considering the Panthers played without senior center Aaron Gray for half the game. Gray, who has a badly sprained left ankle, made the decision to play shortly before the 2 p.m. start.
"I told [Dixon] I could go out there," Gray said. "I told him I'd let him know if it was hurting. I told him if I'm not producing take me out for that reason. Otherwise, let me play."
Gray did not appear to be bothered much by the ankle during the game. He did not start but played 21 minutes and was 4 for 7 from the field with 10 points and six rebounds.
"He felt better than I would have anticipated," Dixon said. "He was very anxious to play. Considering he hadn't played in a week, I thought he did a great job and battled. But, obviously, he wasn't 100 percent."
If Gray had been 100 percent Pitt might have been able to take advantage of the fact that Georgetown center Roy Hibbert and power forward Jeff Green picked up their second fouls midway through the first half. Green picked up his second foul with 10:12 remaining and had to sit the remainder of the half. Hibbert picked up his second with 9:08 left and was in and out of the game for the rest of the half.
During the time both Hibbert and Green were on the bench, Pitt went on an 8-4 run and momentarily took a 19-18 lead with 6:01 remaining before halftime. But Georgetown reclaimed the momentum and led, 29-26, at halftime.
The Panthers took the eight-point lead in the second half because they got hot from 3-point range. Antonio Graves, Sam Young and Ramon made 3-pointers, and Mike Cook converted three free throws after being fouled in Pitt's 16-3 run.
But, when Pitt went cold, Georgetown heated up. The Hoyas were 6 for 13 over the final 11 minutes and made 10 of 12 from the free-throw line.
The score was tied, 49-49, with 5:25 to go. Georgetown took the lead for good when Jessie Sapp got behind Graves for a backdoor layup with 3:24 remaining. Cook missed a one-and-one opportunity at the other end. Young rebounded his miss, but made a bad pass out to the top of the key that Jonathan Wallace intercepted and converted into a layup at the other end for a 53-49 lead with 2:29 left.
Gray made it 53-51, but Georgetown took a six-point lead after two Jeff Green free throws and another basket by Sapp after another turnover by Young.
There was more poor execution to follow. With the score 57-52, Cook turned the ball over with 59 seconds remaining, and it took the Panthers 20 seconds before they realized they had to foul Georgetown.
From there, it was a parade to the free-throw line, and Georgetown made its freebies to all but clinch the school's first regular-season title in a decade.
"They made some plays and knocked down some shots," Kendall said. "It was a game of runs. That's what's going to happen when teams are evenly matched. It was back and forth. You have to be able to make the plays at the end, and we didn't. That's really what it came down to."
NOTES -- Gray said he was "day to day" with his ankle injury. His bad ankle was swollen after the game and hurt, but he said if it is up to him he will play in Pitt's next game Tuesday against West Virginia. ...Young and Ramon led Pitt with 11 points apiece. ... Wallace led Georgetown with 17 points.
Antonio Graves flips over Georgetown's Roy Hibbert on a drive to the basket yesterday in the showdown for first place in the Big East at the Verizon Center in Washington.
Click photo for larger image.
What: Big East tournament.
When: March 7-10.
Where: Madison Square Garden.
The top seed: The only way Pitt can earn the top seed is if it wins its two remaining games and Georgetown loses its last two games.
Tuesday.....vs. West Virginia
Aaron Gray made a surprise appearance yesterday, but it wasn't enough.
Click photo for larger image.Georgetown's Roy Hibbert, right, gets a fistful of Levon Kendall's jersey as Kendall drives to the basket.
First Published February 25, 2007 12:00 am