On The Road With John Rooke: Pittsburgh

Little things still mean a lot.

For instance, free throws. Turnovers. Missed putbacks within three feet of the basket. They all count toward a final result, and for ninth-ranked Pittsburgh on Saturday night, they all counted in an 81-68 decision for the Panthers.

This match-up simply has not been a good one for the Friars over the past four seasons, as Pitt has used their size and strength to hold a decided advantage over most teams they face…Providence included. Six straight wins in this series by the Panthers will attest to that.

And yet, Saturday night at the Peterson Events Center, the Friar game plan was solid in theory, if not in actuality – limit the touches inside for 7-foot junior center Aaron Gray by clogging the middle, and taking your chances with outside shooting. Simply put, the Friars did not want Gray to (almost) single-handedly beat them this time around, as he did with a 22-point, 9 rebound performance at the Dunk on February 15th.

The problem with the game plan, however, was the Friars' inability to convert on the little things. Cold shooting from the start (1-7 from the floor in the games' opening minutes) put them in a hole, and while Pitt held a mere 10-8 lead at one point in the first half, PC could never pull even. Missed free throws (7-18 at one point, finishing 11-22 for the game) absolutely killed any chance of hanging in for the long haul. While Pittsburgh did, at one point in the first half, hold an 18 point lead (39-21), the lead was 14 points at halftime. And the Friars had no one to blame but themselves. There were open looks at the basket, and the offense was executing its' game plan. They simply were not finishing.

Second half starts have been problematic for this team, but that was not the case on Saturday night. Staying within 11-16 points early on, the Friars finally put a run on the Panthers that Pitt had trouble answering… a 12-2 run that pulled PC within 6 points at 55-49 with a little more than 10 minutes remaining. During this time, outside shots began to connect, inside play was more assertive and turnovers were limited.

Pitt, however, turned to its' leader, senior guard Carl Krauser, to get things jump started again. Two key three-pointers, plus some inspired play off the bench from junior guard Antonio Graves, paved the way. Aaron Gray, who spent time on the bench in foul trouble, returned to help polish off the Friars with 17 points and 9 rebounds total, while Graves led the way with 18 points. Gray's two-game totals against Providence will read 39 points scored, with 18 rebounds on 16-19 shooting from the floor. Defensively, PC had the plan this time around. Gray is just a load to handle in the middle. After the game, several in the Friar travel party managed to come up with the same two-word piece of advice for Gray – "go pro."

Three items stand out in retrospect:

Geoff McDermott's rebounding is a skill that few players in the Big East can match. 14 boards on Saturday night (with three points scored) now gives him five consecutive games with double-figures in rebounds. This is taking place despite his injured foot, which is now diagnosed as a stress fracture. This past week, a larger, more protective boot was placed on Geoff's left foot for him to wear while not practicing or playing. Apparently, he cannot do more damage than is already done, and he has adapted to playing with the discomfort. Actually, Geoff has told me that it feels better, at times, than it has since the start of the season. While his rebounding is largely due to effort, his injury is still affecting his offensive game, as he has trouble getting "lift" while driving to the basket.

Donnie McGrath – Pitt defensed Donnie as well as anyone has this season. After he scorched the Panthers for 28 points at the Dunk, Jamie Dixon clearly had his sights set on #1, and held him to a season-low tying seven points. The Panthers stayed in a tight man-to-man on McGrath throughout, primarily using Krauser, Graves and Ronald Ramon against him, and switched out a lot of screens that the Friars tried to set to spring him open. It did enable other players to get their shot more often, but with one notable exception, the Friars could not connect.

That exception came from Sharaud Curry. The Friar freshman just isn't a freshman any more, based on his floor performances. He led the way with 24 points, 21 in the second half – and he hit his first basket of the game with only :01 on the clock before halftime…in all, 24 points scored in 20:01. It was his third 20-point half this season (Florida and Yale were the others). Curry showed exceptional quickness against Krauser in particular, as the all-Big East guard could not keep up with his quickness on cuts to the basket.

The Friar big men (Herbert Hill, Randall Hanke) combined for 30 points inside, and did a better job defensively on Gray, while on the offensive end used their speed and quickness to get ahead. Pitt just has too many weapons, as they went 11 deep on the bench, with Graves (a non-starter) leading them in scoring.

PC will need that same kind of effort from their big men, and everyone else included, Wednesday night in the regular season finale at the Dunk against Notre Dame. As speculated for some time now, this game will determine the Friars' post-season fate, for New York and perhaps beyond. It will take the little things – with a few big shots mixed in – to beat the Fighting Irish.

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