March Sadness

For the first time all season, sharp free-throw shooting actually kept the Pitt men's basketball team in a game.

However, making 18 of 19 from the foul line wasn't enough to help the Panthers in their second-round NCAA game Saturday night at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Pittsburgh shot just 32.7 percent from the field, including a dismal 2-for-17 from 3-point range, and lost to Michigan State 65-54 to be knocked out.

Pitt finished the season at 27-10 with a Big East title and a bright future with three starters and five of its top seven players returning, but Michigan State (27-8) advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with the victory.

"It's tough,'' Pitt junior point guard Levance Fields said. "Obviously, we were on a roll, but that didn't mean anything. Anytime in this tournament, if you don't do the right things you can be eliminated. (And) Michigan State, they're a tough team. I don't think this was a normal second-round game in the tournament.

"Obviously, this was the game. They battled, and we battled. But in the end, like Coach said, they out-rebounded us, and that was something we couldn't afford to happen. And that helped propel them to a victory.''

Even though Pitt is among the top rebounding teams in the tournament, the Spartans used a marked height advantage to secure a 37-26 rebounding advantage. That, coupled with horrendous shooting from the field (just 17 field goals in 52 attempts), kept the Panthers from taking control against MSU.

"I felt that a lot of the shots that we normally make tonight, we missed,'' Pitt junior forward Sam Young said. "I feel like they played good defense, and I credit their coach for having a great scheme.

"(But) we still were able to get some good looks. We just didn't knock them down, and when you are in a sudden-death situation like this in the (NCAA) tournament, you can't have that happen.''

The Panthers actually led 44-42 with 9:39 remaining on a Young basket, two of his 15 points, and had several possessions to extend their lead. However, missed open shots and a couple turnovers thwarted that performance. And MSU eventually regained control to outscore Pitt 23-10 the rest of the way.

"I thought we came in (halftime) in pretty good shape,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, "considering we didn't make some open shots and they hit some tough ones. ... In the second half, they got some transition lay-ups, and it seemed like every missed three turned into a long rebound and breakout for them.

"Especially when we were up two and had an open three, it turned out to be a run-out for them. So, I felt like our defense was good, but not great in the first half. (But) I can't say enough about how we battled back. We were down 10 and turned it around after a timeout to put ourselves up by two and in a good position, but nothing seemed to go right after that point.

"We only had nine turnovers against a good defensive team,'' Dixon added, "and ... we made our free throws. But we could have shot it better. They made their free throws, 9-for-9, but they made some threes. And we didn't.''

Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas combined for 21 of the final 25 points for the Spartans to help them beat Pitt, as Neitzel led MSU with 21 points, while Lucas finished with 19.

Fields had 19 points for the Panthers, while Blair added 10 points and seven rebounds. But that was it for Pitt. Seniors Ronald Ramon (1-for-9) and Keith Benjamin (1-for-3) scored two points each, and the Panthers bench was no help, either, as junior forward Tyrell Biggs tallied two points and one rebound in 11 forgettable minutes and Gilbert Brown had four points (all from the line) with no rebounds in 21 minutes.

"When you look back on this season, what we overcame and what we were able to accomplish, I'm very proud of this team and myself as an individual and the coaching staff and everybody,'' Young said.

"I felt like a lot of people counted us out at a certain point this season, but we came on strong to win the Big East championship and got to this point in the tournament. So, we showed a lot for ourselves.''

With Young and Fields expected to return for their senior seasons, as well as Blair for his sophomore campaign, Pitt has a solid core coming back. Biggs will be a senior and Brown a redshirt sophomore. And with a solid recruiting class, the Panthers should compete for a second straight Big East crown.

"It's tough to talk about next season right now, but we have three starters coming back,'' Fields said. "That's pretty much our nucleus, so ... as long as we work hard this summer and learn from this and get better, like we did this (past) summer and hopefully stay injury-free next year, we should be fine.''

MSU faces the Memphis-Mississippi State winner in the Sweet Sixteen.

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