Panthers Land in Big East Championship Game

With 7-foot senior center Aaron Gray struggling with foul trouble from the outset, senior forward Antonio Graves took charge and scored 23 points, including all four 3-pointers in the second half, to lead the University of Pittsburgh past Louisville 65-59 in a Big East Tournament semifinal Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

That means Pitt (27-6) gets to avenge another late-season loss when it faces Georgetown in the championship game tonight at 9. The Panthers hoped to get retribution against Marquette, Louisville and Georgetown for beating them and keeping them from winning the Big East's regular-season crown and went 2-for-2 in that quest. Now, only the Hoyas remain.

Pitt is playing in its sixth Big East title game in the past seven seasons. The Panthers won the 2003 crown and lost last year to Syracuse.

Gray scored four quick points on a basket and two free throws, but he also picked up two fouls in less than three minutes. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon inexplicably put him back in the game with about a minute remaining in the first half, even though the Panthers stayed close to Louisville. He stayed out of trouble, but Pitt trailed 37-26 at halftime.

"They saw a side of me that they probably didn't see before,'' Dixon said. afterward. "We did some things that were very uncharacteristic of us in the first half, and I wanted that to be different in the second half.''

That trend changed immediately in the second half. Pitt went on an 8-0 run to get back in the game, as Graves hit a pair of treys. Just call Graves Mr. Madison Square Garden. He had Pitt's best performance in the Big East Tourney last year and is off to another solid showing.

Gray and Levon Kendall, who moved to center when the big guy was out, both picked up their third fouls in the opening two minutes in the second half. And Gray got his fourth less than five minutes in. But Pitt picked up its defensive intensity. That's what was missing in the first half. Sure, the Panthers played decent defense and were 10-for-11 from the free-throw line in the first half, but they couldn't shoot outside at all.

Pitt missed all six 3-pointers, and sophomore point guard Levance Fields was horrendous from the field. He didn't get much better in the second half and was 0-for-7 overall. But he still played an excellent floor game and solid defense, which is why he stayed in the game. He also is a good free-throw shooter and hit a couple from the line late.

The Panthers were 7-for-7 from the line down the stretch to seal the win. This was crucial, and it will be important to continue that trend against Georgetown. That will be among Pitt's keys to success. The Panthers must make their free throws, make the extra pass to get a good shot (then make it) and stay out of foul trouble (primarily Gray).

In Georgetown's comeback win against Notre Dame in the other semifinal, 7-2 center Roy Hibbert was in foul trouble and the Hoyas gave up a lot of open shots in the first half. They battled back with the spectacular play of Big East player of the year Jeff Green, and he will be tough to contain. But the Panthers can handle him with solid team defense. That's Gray and Kendall, primarily, as well as help from Sam Young and Mike Cook.

 If Pitt can keep Hibbert off the boards and away from the basket and keep Green from going wild, nowhere near the monster game he had against Notre Dame, it can win.
 And that would be a testament to the Panthers' experience.

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