On The Road With John Rooke: Pittsburgh

After a "by-the-seat-of-the-pants" win at home against Cincinnati, the next task at hand for the Providence Friars appeared rather daunting – trying to win on the road at 6th ranked Pittsburgh.

For the most part, even though PC fell short of the Panthers Saturday night by a 74-68 count, the Friars played stronger and tougher, if not smarter on the floor. But to win a game of this magnitude, away from home, and in a place you've never won before…there had to be a near-perfect effort to pull it off.

Most elements were in place for the upset – solid shooting from the floor, strong effort on the backboards, reduced turnovers and mistakes – all ingredients PC needed to have a shot at the "W." Pitt was coming off of an emotional road win over rival West Virginia, with only two days' rest and prep time for the Friars. Add to this mix the Panthers had won six straight against PC – most of them one-sided games – and it was reasonable to expect Pittsburgh to be a little short of its' best. One little line, however, stood out as the culprit, the spoiler for an otherwise solid effort.

The free-throw line. It proved to be the ultimate undoing.

Connecting on only 7 of 16 for the game was a glaring faux pas for a team that averages better than 70% from the line for the season. The poor performance from the charity stripe wasn't the only reason PC fell short, but statistically speaking, it was the BIG reason. Consider that the Friars and Panthers each made an equal number of field goals (28) and three-pointers (5), but Pitt outscored Providence 13 to 7 from the line – the six point edge being the ultimate margin of victory for the Panthers.

There was also the added presence in the paint of four-year nemesis, 7-0 center Aaron Gray. The pre-season player of the year in the Big East pushed and prodded his way to 22 points and seven rebounds on the night, 13 of those points coming in the second half. The Friars led at halftime 34-33, after matching Pitt's intensity in the early going by opening in a man-to-man defense. With the presence of Gray inside, and the three-point threat from outside (Pitt leads the Big East at 43% from outside the arc in league games), the thought was to pressure the ball, and Pitt's players, and not allow looks against a zone. With freshman center Ray Hall able to use his size against Gray and Pitt's interior game, the strategy worked, as Gray earned a second foul with 8:53 remaining, putting him on the bench for the rest of the half.

The second half story didn't quite turn out the same way, however.

The Panthers made a concerted effort to feed Gray in the post, and it paid off. Eight of his 13 second half points came in a key 15-3 run as Pitt fought back from a six-point deficit, turning the game into a six point lead. "Really, we needed him in there," said Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon, on his decision to force feed Gray. "That's what it got down to."

"When he's on the floor, they have that weapon," said Friar head coach Tim Welsh. "You can do a lot of different things when he's not in the game. But for us, it was pick your poison. Very rarely do you see a team shoot 43 percent from the three-point line. That number can hurt you. I've seen teams try to zone them and they're very efficient with the zone. They've always attacked our zone well. I don't like leaving Gray loose, I wanted to have a body on him. What our problem was, they've surrounded him with great shooters, which makes it tough."

It sure does.

The Friars were able to stay in the game the whole way, thanks to a 41-33 advantage on the backboards, and because they shot the ball well themselves, at 46 percent. The turning point in the game came with 3:44 remaining, as PC's Geoff McDermott tipped away a cross-court pass on defense with the Friars trailing by two, 61-59. Sharaud Curry got his hands on the ball, but so did Pitt's Antonio Graves, who gained control, drove the lane and hit the lay-up plus a foul shot to put Pitt back up by five.

Graves, who scored 13 points (all in the second half), was in the right place at the right time. And for the seventh straight try against the Panthers, the Friars just ran out of time.

Game Notes:
The 6-11 Hall had perhaps his best game yet as a Friar, with the freshman from Denver, CO scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds in a career high 22 minutes. It was his play in the paint against Gray, however, that gave the Friars a physical presence they have sorely missed the past three years in trying to defend Pittsburgh's inside game. Hall has battled through two ankle injuries this season in somewhat limited playing time. Was it perfect? No. But it was also clear to see that with time, and after he regains basketball shape, he can become a factor…Herbert Hill led the way with 20 points and 10 rebounds, his 9th double-double effort of the season. Playing man-to-man on defense most of the way, however, drained his offensive effort down the stretch. Hill managed just 4-10 shooting from the floor in the second half, 2-4 from the line…Sharaud Curry also scored 20 points, playing the entire 40 minutes (he leads the Big East in minutes played per game) and had an impressive performance against Pitt's guards. Joe Hassett mentioned during the radio broadcast he thought Curry was the best guard out on the floor, matched up most of the night with fellow sophomore Levance Fields, junior Ron Ramon and senior Antonio Graves…Ramon, who leads the Big East at 53% from three-point range in league games, was held to 0-3 outside the stripe…Geoff McDermott finished as the only other player in double figures with 11 points and 5 rebounds, but was only 3-6 from the foul line…Coach Welsh was hoping that a changeup in travel itinerary would help changeup the Friar fortunes in the Steel City. The team stayed in a different hotel than previous trips, did not shoot around at the Peterson Events Center on the morning of the game (choosing instead to walk through in a hotel ballroom), and then bussing to the arena a little earlier than normal for the 6:00 pm tip off. Coupled with the man defense, there was more intensity to start…seen in the stands before the game – the URI broadcast crew of Steve McDonald and Don Kaull, with the Rams playing in Pittsburgh at Duquesne Sunday…former PC graduate assistant Richard Pitino, now on Ron Everhart's staff at Duquesne, was flying home to Pittsburgh from T.F. Green, after taking in the prep tournament at URI. He told us that his dad (Rick Pitino at Louisville) really likes Herbert Hill…former Brown and UMass head football coach Mark Whipple visited with several members of the Friar travel party before and after the game. Whipple was the quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a part of their Super Bowl run a year ago (he flashed his bling-bling) but was not retained by the new coaching staff. Whipple told us he's going to take this next year off, most likely, to watch his sons play before taking another position. He'd like to return to the college game, if not as a head coach (he won a national title at UMass, an Ivy ring at Brown, and he was a candidate at Boston College), perhaps as an offensive coordinator at a major program. Does Mack Brown need any help at Texas? Whipple and PC athletic director Bob Driscoll coached baseball together at Union College in 1980, sharing some great stories of their travels together…one of the true culinary delights of our Big East travels is in Pittsburgh, as Primanti's never fails to amaze or disappoint. For those of you unfamiliar with the "cuisine," Primanti's serves a deli-style sandwich that includes cole slaw and french fries INSIDE the sandwich, piled (and I mean piled) on top of the meat and thick, fresh homemade bread. I heartily recommend the chili (hot!) and a fried boloney (that's the way they spell it) with cheese. Topped off with a couple of cold IC Light's, it's hard to beat – just like the Panthers.

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