Pitt Gears Up For Homestretch

With an RPI less than 25 and 21-8 overall record, including a 9-7 mark in the Big East, the Pitt men's basketball team appears to be assured to get a seventh straight NCAA Tournament bid when the 65-team field is announced March 16.

A win either at West Virginia (20-9, 9-7) Monday night at 7 or in the regular-season finale with DePaul Sunday at noon at the Petersen Events Center would give Pittsburgh a seventh straight season with at least 20 wins overall and 10 in the Conference. And that should cement an NCAA Tournament trip no matter what happens during the Big East Tournament March 12-15.

But the way the Panthers won at Syracuse Saturday did more than give them momentum. It showed that Pitt still has heart, and maybe this once-promising season won't end prematurely in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

"This really helps us, because in games in the past, when we went down double-digits with four or five minutes to go, we really crumbled,'' redshirt freshman forward Gilbert Brown said. "(This time) the whole team stuck together.

"We believed in it, and we went out and did it. Coach called a timeout and gave us the inspiration we needed. ... Then, we got the key turnovers and made it happen. It was just an incredible win for this basketball team.''

Junior forward Sam Young, who topped the Panthers with 19 points against the Orange and averages 18.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game to lead them, also believed the victory would give Pitt a boost going into the homestretch.

"That's probably the best comeback I've ever been involved in,'' Young said. "We were down 11 with three minutes on the clock. That's incredible. It shows the confidence we have in each other. Coach says to play all 40 minutes, and we did. I mean, that's incredible. You really have to give a lot of credit to these guys, because it shows the confidence that we have in each other.''

Coach Jamie Dixon noticed that the Panthers were fading fast against the Orange and decided to get things straightened out during a late timeout.

"It looked like we were pulling apart,'' Dixon said. "We brought them in and said we're not going to quit. We may not win, but we're not going to quit. There's no quit in this team. ... I don't think we did everything right for 40 minutes, but we did the last three minutes. We seemed to do exactly what we wanted to do.''

One thing that Dixon did was play Brown during the waning minutes instead of sticking with his starting five: Young, junior point guard Levance Fields -- 2-for-9 from the field, but 8-for-8 from the free-throw line -- freshman DeJuan Blair -- who averages 12 points and 9.5 rebounds per game -- and seniors Keith Benjamin and Ronald Ramon.

Brown was a good outside shooter throughout his scholastic career, but he has been inconsistent this season and has struggled mightily from 3-point range. Brown's long-range shooting was horrendous during February, but he appeared to regain his stroke against the Orange and hit two big 3-pointers.

Brown tallied 12 points in just 21 minutes, but more importantly he had five rebounds and played tight defense against an athletic Syracuse team that shot nearly 60 percent from the field.

"I still had confidence in my game,'' Brown said. "I knew that eventually I would get through it, as long as I kept working hard, and (Saturday) was just the day.''

The Panthers certainly could use Brown's strong contributions at both ends during their remaining games, and if the athletic forward continues to improve it could fuel a strong showing for Pitt in both tournaments. However, don't expect Brown to start. When asked about it recently, Dixon said that Brown is better when coming off the bench.

That might be true, but Brown certainly deserves more minutes. Dixon usually questions where to get the minutes. The most logical choice is from Ramon. He has been average offensively, hitting an occasional 3-pointer, but has been poor defensively. Both Ramon and Brown are good free-throw shooters, better than 80 and 77 percent, respectively, but Ramon usually is among Pitt's leaders in minutes played.

Despite his defensive struggles, Ramon played 35 minutes at Syracuse, while Benjamin played 37 and Young had 36. Due to foul trouble, Blair and Fields played just 26 minutes each. Since Blair played just six first-half minutes after getting an early second foul, junior Tyrell Biggs played extensively and finished with 15 minutes. Freshman center Gary McGhee played just four minutes and made no impact. Frosh guard Bradley Wanamaker stayed on the bench.

Dixon apparently is trying to set his rotation for the tournaments, but the Panthers will need to be deep to win at West Virginia. The Mountaineers are led by Joe Alexander with 15.1 points and six rebounds per game. Alex Rouff is at 14 points per contest, while Da'Sean Butler averages 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. And Darris Nichols is at 11.1 points.

Alexander had a career-best 32 points and 10 rebounds Saturday in a WVU loss at Connecticut. In Pitt's stunning 55-54 win against the Mountaineers on Ramon's buzzer-beating 3-pointer Feb. 7 at the Petersen Events Center, Alexander was just 2-for-11 with five points and no treys in just 24 minutes.

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