NEW YORK -- Thirty minutes before tipoff Friday night, the defending Big East champions were getting loose -- literally -- during layup lines. Toree Morris was slamming home some high-flying dunks. Mark McCarroll was singing along to "Hey Ya" by Outkast. All of the Pittsburgh Panthers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and smiling.
All except Carl Krauser, that is.
Krauser was all business. You could see it in his face. He stared down every warmup jumper he took -- and studied everyone else's, too. When he was introduced during starting lineups, there were no leaping chest bumps. Just a calm, determined look.
Because this is serious business. This is the Big East tournament. And Carl Krauser's trying to lead a team to a championship.
A year ago as a freshman, Krauser was the backup to Brandin Knight, the all-Big East point guard who led the Panthers to their first-ever conference title. Knight's gone, but Krauser's got his team on the doorstep of a second straight championship and potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after a 62-53 semifinal win over Boston College.
"We toughed it out, especially on the defensive end," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "And our guys stepped up in the end, as they always seem to do."
BC led 26-22 at the half, and the game remained tight to the very end. But Pittsburgh prevailed primarily because of Krauser, who paced the team with 18 points. Though he struggled shooting the ball (6-18, 0-3 on 3-pointers), he made several critical plays down the stretch.
"He's a tough guard," BC forward Craig Smith said. "Guards from New York are supposed to be tough. I got a piece of it today."
Krauser grew up in the Bronx. In fact, after making a free throw, he makes an "X" with his arms, in tribute to the borough in which he was born. As a young kid, he attended all kinds of events at Madison Square Garden -- basketball games, wrestling matches, even the circus. "I'd always look around and wonder what it would feel like to play there," he said.
He finally got that chance last year. But it wasn't his team.
"A lot of people didn't think I could get this team to a championship," said Krauser. "I've got my own style. But it feels really good to get them back to the championship game."
Krauser's a very different player than Knight. He can distribute the ball, but he's also the best playmaker on the team as well as the leading scorer (15.3 ppg). He can bully his way into the paint, courtesy of a boulder-like upper body, but he's also got great touch from long range. Most importantly, he's not afraid to keep shooting even when he's struggling, which enables him to be Pitt's go-to guy. He was even named the Big East's Most Improved Player earlier this week.
But perhaps Krauser's biggest asset is his body language. When BC led for a few minutes in the second half, Pitt's other players on the floor looked uninspired, even stunned. But Krauser still had that determined look on his face. He constantly encouraged his teammates, and they seemed to feed off of him.
This is a very experienced Pittsburgh squad. The Panthers have a couple of solid seniors in Julius Page and Jaron Brown. But make no mistake, this is Krauser's team. He was the only Pitt player to play all 40 minutes Friday night.
And who's Krauser's basketball role model? The new boss at Madison Square Garden, Isiah Thomas. "Isiah always said don't stop until the clock says zero," Krauser said.
On Friday, he followed that advice -- almost. With 20 seconds to play, and victory finally in hand, Krauser relented and showed off a smile. And when the final buzzer sounded, he sprinted over to the guys at the end of Pittsburgh's bench, to embrace them and celebrate with them.
It's his team, and he's taking care of every last one of them.
"It definitely feels special here, to come home and get a win," Krauser said. "I definitely wanted to get back to the championship game."
On Saturday, he'll try to take care of a little more business.
Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine who contributes to ESPN.com on a regular basis.