Drama nothing new for Pitt
BOSTON -- So this is how it's going to be for Pitt: grinders, late-game drama and nothing easy, not a basket and certainly not a win.
That's what Pitt has been about for nearly a decade ever since Ben Howland started the resurrection of basketball in the Steel City and passed on the baton to his trusted friend Jamie Dixon, who has now taken the Panthers to another level: the Elite Eight.
Thursday's 60-55 victory over Xavier for the top-ranked Panthers was the third straight game that had Pitt fans anxious down to the final minutes. Forget the seeds -- No. 16 East Tennessee State or No. 8 Oklahoma State -- and certainly disregard Xavier's No. 4.
Pitt isn't masquerading during the NCAA tournament. The Panthers are who they are: a defensive, rebounding-oriented team that has streaky shooters in Sam Young and Levance Fields and a man in the middle in DeJuan Blair who can play at times well below the rim. The role players are hardly predictable. But, in the end, all that matters is this team is filled with winners.
Fields bailed out the Panthers yet again with a dramatic step-back 3-pointer with 53 seconds left to give Pitt a 55-54 lead. Fields then combined with Gilbert Brown to force a turnover at the other end and finished with a layup to give the Panthers a three-point lead with 24 seconds left.
"I did a little in-and-out move, which created just enough space, got them on their heels and once I got separation I took the shot and had all the confidence it would go in," said Fields. Fields has done this to VCU in the 2007 NCAA tournament, Duke in the regular season and Connecticut last month.
"I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots," Dixon said. "He's made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him and that's all that matters."
I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots. He's made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him and that's all that matters.” -- Pitt coach Jamie Dixon
Pitt beat Xavier despite shooting 1-of-8 on 3s in the second half, 4-of-15 for the game. The Panthers couldn't crack 34 percent overall and Blair missed 11 shots -- a high number for a player who competes mostly 5 feet from the basket.
"We just found a way," said Young, who missed nine shots himself. "We've got players who can make big plays. There is excitement and a bit of relief."
The Panthers have been to the Sweet 16 five of the past eight seasons. They hadn't been to the Elite Eight during that run. Fair or not, the Panthers were expected to reach Detroit. This was their first time as a No. 1 seed. The Panthers were a No. 2 in 1988 prior to the Howland-Dixon era and then in Dixon's first season in 2003.
Young said there were anxious moments late in the second half. How could there not be? But the defense did tighten up as Xavier scored only 18 points and shot 1-of-11 on 3s in the second half (5-of-23 for the game).
Dixon said the Panthers were a bit surprised by Xavier's length and athleticism.
The emotion in the locker room was a combination of "50-50 relief and excitement," according to Fields. No one wanted to admit the pressure the Panthers were facing and Dixon said he didn't think they looked at the historic nature of finally reaching the Elite Eight. But he said there has been a difference this season as a No. 1-ranked team. Dixon couldn't quantify it but just said the expectations have changed the way this team has been perceived.
Associate head coach Tom Herrion joined Dixon's staff prior to last season. Herrion dismissed the notion that the Panthers had to get over "the hump," saying that it's a lot harder "than it looks in college basketball and there are plenty of great coaches who never got to this level or the Final Four."
Herrion added, "If this is what it takes to validate our program then we validated it but we're not happy with just this. We're not satisfied. We have bigger goals and we're one of eight teams left playing this weekend."
Regardless of the opponent Saturday the Panthers know they don't need to have a good-looking effort to win.
"We understand that no game is going to be easy," Fields said. "Fortunately for us, in some ways we still haven't played our best basketball, but other opponents have been playing excellent. ... It hasn't been a blowout, but we're making the plays down the stretch when the game is on the line. And we keep advancing."
Pitt beat ETSU by 10 and OSU by eight and now Xavier by four.
"Hopefully on Saturday we can play better," Fields said. "But if we have to win again like this, we'll take it."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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