Commentary

Pitt overcomes deflating injury to knock off Duke

Originally Published: December 21, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Pitt basketball always seems to be filled with raw emotion, toughness and results.

If you wanted to see this program's definition on display, then you had to be at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

You saw it when No. 9 Pitt trailed No. 7 Duke by 13 points in the second half and refused to wilt.

You witnessed it with freshman DeJuan Blair grabbing 20 rebounds, flashing a Big Baby-like smile every time he was on the court.

You saw it when Pitt coach Jamie Dixon held Mike Cook's hand as the fifth-year senior writhed in pain after his left knee buckled on a drive to the basket in overtime.

You definitely could sense it when Levance Fields, Cook's best friend on the team who was playing in front of countless friends and family from Brooklyn, buried a step-back, game-winning 3-pointer over Duke's David McClure for the 65-64 win with six seconds left in overtime in front of a sellout crowd.

"Once we got into the huddle, I said, 'I'm going for the win,' and coach trusted me," Fields said. "I felt like everything was on our side. Losing Mike, it felt like the best thing was to go for the win in that situation, and once I cleared the space, I'll be honest, I knew it was good. I like to shoot my shots fading away. I had a good release and it went in. It was really special."

It was special because Cook has been a special player for the Pitt program since transferring from East Carolina three years ago. After the game, as Dixon had a brief moment alone in the coaches' locker room, despite the euphoria of winning a thrilling game, Dixon's eyes watered as he held back tears as he spoke of his fondness for Cook.

"He's grown so much and become a leader and so liked by the players and really bought into our program," Dixon said of Cook. "We had a lot of heart-to-hearts during his redshirt year."

Cook was in so much pain that he couldn't make it to the locker room without the help of a wheelchair. He was on crutches after the game, and the speculation -- and fear -- from the coaching staff was that he had suffered a season-ending knee injury. And that's why there was more of a somber, emotional mood following the game.

Dixon has gone through an emotional 18 months since his sister, former Army coach Maggie Dixon, suddenly died of a heart condition in April of 2006 at 28. And the Pitt coach said Cook's commitment to the Panthers' program and its ideals made the injury even more difficult to digest.

"He means a lot to us," Dixon said. "If someone was going to hit [the winning shot], it was going to be [Fields]. They're best friends. They do everything together and we talked about winning it for Mike."

That kind of spirited huddle chatter sounds good, but like most of what Pitt does, it was once again real, raw emotion that wasn't phony.

The Panthers had to beat Duke in overtime without Cook, probably their most versatile forward, and then without Blair, who had fouled out with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining in overtime and the game tied at 62.

The injury and the foul situation could have all deflated to the Panthers. Still, once Duke held a 63-62 lead on DeMarcus Nelson's free throw to complete the three-point play that fouled Blair out, the Panthers hardly collapsed.

Sure, Fields traveled on one possession. And then he committed an offensive foul on the next possession. But once Kyle Singler made only one of two free throws to give the Blue Devils a 64-62 lead, Fields knew he had one more chance and 16 seconds to win this game for Cook.

[+] EnlargeMike Cook
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonDespite all the good feelings about the win, the Pitt locker room was a bit somber after senior Mike Cook injured his left knee on a drive to the basket.

"Once we got into the huddle, I said, 'I'm going for the win,' and coach trusted me," Fields said. "I felt like everything was on our side. Losing Mike, it felt like the best thing was to go for the win in that situation, and once I cleared the space, I'll be honest, I knew it was good. I like to shoot my shots fading away. I had a good release and it went in. It was really special."

And when Duke's Jon Scheyer missed a 3-pointer and a wild shot off an offensive rebound, Pitt ran around the court to celebrate the win.

"We felt like we didn't play as tough as we should have," Duke's Gerald Henderson said. "They're a physical team. It's a mindset. It's nothing tactical or strategic. We just have to be tougher."

"I am not just disappointed, I am very disappointed," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "You come here, you are playing in the Garden against a really good team, an outstanding program, and we should have had more energy and toughness."

Henderson said the Blue Devils didn't come out with the same fire in the second half as in the first, and it was obvious the Blue Devils' coaching staff felt the same way as Krzyzewski and assistant Steve Wojciechowski got in the grills of the players during a heated timeout.

"We knew coming in we had to play a man's game," Singler said. "In the second half, they got the best of us. We weren't tough enough to get the win."

That's largely because they couldn't keep Blair off the backboard. Earlier in the week, Blair told ESPN.com that he was capable of being a 20 and 10 guy, but maybe he meant 20-rebound player.

"I didn't think I could do that," said the engaging Blair just before he stopped the postgame interview for a moment to shake Krzyzewski's hand, of course while still offering up his infectious smile.

"I love this game," Blair said. "I'm having a ball out there as you can see. That's what I do. I have fun. I should be one of the top freshmen now."

Since Blair is a freshman, he gets a pass for not being as emotionally drained as Fields or Dixon. His ties to the past at Pitt, let alone Cook, aren't the same, even if he is the first player from the city of Pittsburgh to play for the Panthers since 1991.

Fields said Keith Benjamin, a senior on the team, said in the postgame locker room that this was the first time in years the Panthers had held together after trailing at halftime by 12, which ties the largest comeback in school history.

"We've always been pretty confident, but the difference is we made shots and made plays," Dixon said of this team versus teams of his previous years at Pitt.

Sure, it is just one game, one win over Duke, handing the Blue Devils their first December loss since falling to Stanford in 2000. But it said more about Pitt, about the way they handle themselves in times of duress that exhibited this team's and this program's true identity.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com