Late lapses cost Pitt
Jamie Dixon barks instructions in the first half last night in Boston. Pitt's Final Four drought goes on for at least another year.
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BOSTON -- One day, a long time from now, Pitt players will appreciate all of their tremendous accomplishments in this amazing basketball season. Matching the school record of 31 wins. Making it to No. 1 in the polls for the first time. Beating a No. 1 for the first time. Getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Making it to the Round of 8, a place where no Pitt team had gone in seven previous trips to the tournament in this decade.
But today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and for many years to come, those players will remember only the hurt they felt at the finish of their 78-76 loss to Villanova last night at TD Banknorth Garden, their time together gone forever. For sure, they will cry over the last big play, a drive to the basket and a leaner for the winning points by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds with half a second to play. But they also will be sickened by the memory of the final 3:05 of the throbbing game, when they were so close to Detroit and the Final Four that they could reach out and touch it only to see the prized trip snatched away and given to the equally deserving Villanova bunch.
"We really felt like we should have won the game," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, every bit as despondent as you would expect.
Pitt can make that argument. It climbed out of a 22-12 hole in the first half to take the lead. It came back from 54-49 and 59-55 in the second half to go ahead on each occasion. Even in the frantic finish, when it trailed, 76-72, with 20 seconds to go it battled back to 76-76 on a layup by center DeJuan Blair and, after a Villanova turnover, two free throws by senior point guard Levance Fields with 5.5 seconds left.
"To be down like that and make plays and big shots ... " Dixon said, nearly breaking up. "Everybody in the gym knew those two free throws were going in."
It looked like overtime, for sure. But the brilliant Reynolds would have none of that. He split Pitt's Blair and Jermaine Dixon on his way to the basket and pulled up for the shot over Gilbert Brown that assured he'll always have a prominent place in Villanova lore.
That shot won the game for Villanova, sure. But it didn't lose it for Pitt.
Let's be painfully honest this morning:
The game wasn't snatched from Pitt as much as Pitt handed it to Villanova with a few moments of sloppy play at the worst possible time. Pitt had everything going its way, up, 67-63, with the ball, when Villanova called timeout with 3:05 left. You almost could read Blair's mind -- heck, all of the players' minds -- as the team gathered around Jamie Dixon.
Detroit, here we come!
"I heard the guys saying, 'It isn't over. It isn't over,' " Jamie Dixon said.
No doubt the players said it. But did they really believe it? Or did they lose their focus for a few telling seconds that led to Villanova pulling out the win?
The latter, probably.
Pitt had done a nice job handling Villanova's press to that point. But as guard Jermaine Dixon brought the ball up the court, Villanova's Dwayne Anderson stole it from him and swooped in for a layup. Even more hurtful, Dixon fouled Anderson and Anderson made the free throw.
Just like that, Pitt's lead was 67-66.
Hold those Detroit plane reservations.
"Obviously, that changed it," Jamie Dixon said. "That one play turned it."
Pitt's Sam Young walked on the next possession for another turnover. Villanova's Corey Fisher made a layup for a 68-67 lead with 2:12 left.
In 53 seconds, Pitt went from up four to down 1.
Cancel that Detroit flight.
It didn't become official, of course, until after Reynolds' basket and after Fields' three-quarters-of-the-court heave bounced off the backboard.
The Villanova players knew they were a part of a very special win as they cut down the nets and prepared to move on to the Final Four for a national semifinal game Saturday against North Carolina or Oklahoma.
But the Pitt players?
Even 20 minutes after the game, they weren't quite sure what happened. They just knew their magical season was over.
Worst of all, they knew they won't be together again. Young, Fields and Tyrell Biggs are seniors who will move on with their lives after producing 112 career wins, the most by a Pitt class. Blair, though just a sophomore, seems likely to go to the NBA.
The Pitt players wanted to finish up at the Final Four in Detroit, not in tears in Boston.
"We won out there," Blair insisted in a voice that barely was more than a whisper.
"They just had more points than us."
Sadly, that's not going to change.
That will never change.
First Published March 29, 2009 12:00 am