Ron Cook: Thanks for the memories Pitt, Big East
Former Pitt star Charles Smith is one of many Panther greats who come to mind when reminiscing on the Big East.
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We had the pleasure of watching a lot of the greatest players in college basketball history. Patrick Ewing. Chris Mullin. Dwayne Washington. Alonzo Mourning. Allen Iverson. Carmelo Anthony. The list could go on and on.
We got to see terrific coaches at work. Hall of Famers John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, just for starters. There were so many others.
We saw some of the legendary teams. Who didn't get excited when Connecticut came to town to play Pitt in one of the Big East's best rivalries? Georgetown? Syracuse?
Now, it's coming to an end.
The game today against Villanova at Petersen Events Center is Pitt's final Big East Conference home game.
I really hate writing that sentence.
I know Pitt has to go to the Atlantic Coast Conference for football reasons. The Big East is dead. I'm also aware there will be new, wonderful basketball memories in the ACC. We still will get to watch great players, Hall of Fame coaches and legendary teams.
But will the ACC top the thrills the Big East games gave us at Civic Arena, Fitzgerald Field House and Petersen Events Center?
Good luck with that.
Is it fair to expect Pitt to do in its first season in the ACC what it did in its first season in the Big East? During that 1982-83 season under coach Roy Chipman, it took down Mullin's No. 5-ranked St. John's team, Erich Santifer's Syracuse team and Ewing's Georgetown team. Talk about hitting a trifecta.
In those early Big East days, great opponents came to Pittsburgh but didn't intimidate Pitt. Villanova lost, 85-62, in 1985 at the Field House in the final regular-season game. That was the day Villanova coach Rollie Massimino became so frustrated that he benched his five starters. Villanova went on to stun Georgetown in the national championship game a month later. Syracuse lost, 63-61, late in the 1987 season at Civic Arena. It bounced back to go to the national title game before losing to Indiana.
The 1987-88 season under coach Paul Evans was especially memorable for reasons that went beyond Pitt's first outright Big East regular-season championship. That was the season Pitt's Jerome Lane shattered the backboard at Fitzgerald Field House in a win against Providence, prompting ESPN announcer Bill Raftery to famously scream, "Send it in, Jerome!" It also was the season when Pitt beat Georgetown, 70-65, at Civic Arena in a game that was called in the final seconds because of a brawl between the teams.
There was another special Pitt-Georgetown moment in 1988-89. Pitt beat Mourning's No. 2-ranked Hoyas, 79-74, at Civic Arena behind 24 points from Jason Matthews, 16 points and 11 rebounds from Bobby Martin and 11 assists and no turnovers from Sean Miller. You are a real Pitt fan if you remember that Martin sang the National Anthem before the game.
Fitzgerald Field House was a dump in its latter days -- more on that in a bit -- but it was a tough venue for opposing teams. Ask No. 19 Villanova, which lost to Pitt, 95-89, in 1997 when it couldn't control Jason Maile, who went off for 40 points. Ask No. 12 Syracuse, which lost to Pitt, 72-57, in 2002. You again are a real Pitt fan if you remember that was the last time the Pitt students rushed the floor after a win. Ask West Virginia, which lost to Pitt, 92-65, in 2002 on an emotional night when they closed down the old building for basketball. That win helped send Pitt, under coach Ben Howland, to its first NCAA tournament in nine years.
The thrills continued at the fabulous Petersen Events Center under coach Jamie Dixon. None was greater than Pitt's 70-60 win against No. 1 Connecticut in 2009 behind 31 points from Sam Young, who gushed afterward, "Every time I see those UConn jerseys, my eyes light up." That was the only time in Pitt history it beat the top-ranked team at home.
Who will forget Ronald Ramon's 3-point shot at the buzzer to beat West Virginia, 55-54, in 2008? Or Pitt's comeback from five points down in the final 35 seconds of regulation -- it did it with a basket by Tray Woodall, a steal by Nasir Robinson and a 3-point shot by Ashton Gibbs -- to beat No. 5 West Virginia, 98-95, in 2010 in three overtimes? Or Pitt's comeback from five points down in the final 34 seconds of regulation to beat Louisville, 82-77, in 2010 in overtime? I can still hear Louisville coach Rick Pitino muttering afterward, "Outside of Duke and Christian Laettner, this is the worst loss I've experienced."
One final Big East memory didn't involve such a happy ending for Pitt, but it's too amazing not to mention. No. 1 Connecticut rallied from four points down with 9 seconds left to stun Pitt, 70-69, early in the 1998-99 season at the Field House. Connecticut star Khalid El-Amin scored the winning basket at the buzzer, then jumped on the scorer's table to taunt the Pitt students, who responded by pelting him with debris. After the game, the iconic Calhoun, Connecticut's coach, complained about the security and the showers in the visitor's locker room. "This place is a dump," he said, biting off the words.
Calhoun was right, of course.
It's nice to think Calhoun's rant had something to do with the building of Petersen Events Center.
No one will be calling that place a dump for many years.
Bring on the ACC. Bring on the great players. Bring on Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Bring on Duke and North Carolina.
Let the new memories begin.
First Published March 3, 2013 12:00 am