March 16, 2008

Pittsburgh wins second Big East title with 74-65 victory over No. 9 Georgetown

NEW YORK — There were plenty of souvenirs for the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday night.

Levance Fields had a piece of the nets he and his teammates cut down after winning the Big East tournament championship game wrapped around his right ear like a BlueTooth phone.

DeJuan Blair was holding the championship trophy with a devilish grin that said nobody was taking it from him.

Ronald Ramon was wearing a smile that said a senior playing in his last Big East tournament game got what he wanted so badly: a chance to leave Madison Square Garden with a conference title.

The seventh-seeded Panthers won their fourth game in four days, a 74-65 victory over top-seeded and ninth-ranked Georgetown to win their second title in their eighth championship game appearance.

“We didn’t win this game two years in a row and we found a way to get over the hump,” Fields said. “We know what it’s like to be on the other end, to sit and listen to somebody else celebrate. Tonight, I got a piece of the net.”

Things looked a lot like the last several Big East tournament championship games for Pittsburgh. Except the result.

The Panthers (26-9) shed their runner-up tag with a performance just like those in all the other championship games: a blue-collar effort without a star player.

“We are one of those teams that does whatever it takes, we always have,” Fields said. “We take pride in our defense and none of the teams we played here got 70 points and this was the only team that shot over 40 percent. We outrebounded them by 12. But at the end of the day the biggest thing is we got the win.”

Roy Hibbert had 17 points for the Hoyas (27-5), who were trying to sweep the regular-season and tournament titles for a second straight season.

“They just played like they wanted to win,” Georgetown’s Jessie Sapp said of Pitt. “They made a lot of hustle plays and you wouldn’t have known they played four days. They just played hard.”

Pittsburgh joined Syracuse in 2006 as the only teams to win four games in this tournament.

The Panthers’ only title came in 2003 and that was under coach Ben Howland who left for UCLA after that season. Jamie Dixon was promoted to replace him and despite all those title-game appearances and a won-loss record among the best ever for his time as a head coach, the Panthers had never left Madison Square Garden under him with the trophy.

“National championship teams haven’t done what we’ve done over seven years as far as consistency and what we’ve done year after year,” Dixon said. “A national championship from 30 years ago, a Villanova national championship, that’s remembered forever. … That is our ultimate goal and we don’t have problems discussing that, but it doesn’t take away from what we’ve done.”

Ramon, who scored 17 points, and Sam Young, who had 16 points and was selected tournament MVP, led the Panthers’ balanced offense that thrived on its own missed shots, grabbing 19 offensive rebounds against the bigger Hoyas.

Blair had 10 points and 10 rebounds as Pittsburgh finished with a 41-29 rebound advantage a stat that allowed it to overcome 22-for-44 shooting from the free throw line.

“We had to outrebound them, we talked about it,” Dixon said. “For whatever reason I didn’t think we were playing as aggressively as we were maybe 10 games ago, but when we got all our guys back and were able to get back into it and do the things we do, we were more aggressive more physical, more the way we are, more like Pitt.”

A 3-pointer by Ramon with 3:45 to go and the shot clock running out made it 59-49.

Georgetown was able to get within 65-60 on a 3 by Jonathan Wallace with 1:20 to go, but Ramon went 5-for-6 from the line over the final 1:07 to clinch it.

“Levance did a great job of finding me for that 3 when they gambled,” Ramon said.

Pittsburgh, which has five players from the New York area, improved to 6-0 at Madison Square Garden this season and the Panthers are 23-8 in the building since the 2000-01 season. A lot of that success came in the Big East tournament.

In recent years Pittsburgh relied on Brandin Knight for solid play at the point, on this team it was Fields, who had 10 points, six assists and just one turnover in 36 minutes. Big men like Aaron Gray, Chevon Troutman and Chris Taft did all the grunt work up front in the past. On this team it was Young and Blair banging the boards even against the likes of the 7-foot-2 Hibbert.

It wasn’t anything pretty, but it never is for Pittsburgh. This season was off to a great start with an overtime against Duke at—where else?—Madison Square Garden. But senior forward Mike Cook went down with a season-ending knee injury late in that game. Fields broke his foot the next game and missed the next 12 games, including a 69-60 victory over Georgetown.

“There were some tears for Mike but even though he wasn’t on the court, he was with us,” Fields said. “We started 10-0 then Mike and I got hurt but we were resilient and the team stayed together without us.”

The Panthers used just seven players in the title game, handing the Hoyas their first loss in 15 games in this tournament as its No. 1 seed. Georgetown was looking to add to its record seven tournament titles, the last of which came last season in a blowout of Pittsburgh.

“They hurt us on the boards, it was evident right from the beginning,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “I thought our guys fought, scrapped, but rebounding was key.

“It just happens, one of those days. … You have to give them all the credit in the world. That’s a team that’s gone through a lot of adversity this year with the injuries they’ve had. Obviously Jamie is a terrific coach and has done a terrific job. You have to give them a lot of credit for what they accomplished today.”

Blair scored all but one of the points in a 9-2 run that gave the Panthers a 55-42 lead with 6:25 to go. The points came just as you would expect: he made one free throw after being fouled grabbing an offensive rebound, he scored on a move down low and he had a three-point play after getting another offensive rebound.

Hibbert started to assert himself down low, scoring five points in a 7-1 run that got the Hoyas within 56-59 but Ramon hit his big 3-pointer with the shot clock running down.

Georgetown, which tied a Big East tournament record with 17 3-pointers in the quarterfinal win over West Virginia, was 8-for-24 from behind the arc on Saturday and committed 14 turnovers.

Young was joined on the all-tournament team by Fields, Hibbert, Sapp, Joe Alexander of West Virginia and Jerel McNeal of Marquette.

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