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Taft sparks Pitt over Villanova

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says very few
people care about a conference regular-season title, only what a
team does in the NCAA tournament. Coach Jamie Dixon says the best
regular-season team in Pitt history deserves to be remembered.

Chris Taft led Pittsburgh's comeback from its worst start of the
season with 16 points and 11 rebounds and the No. 6 Panthers
wrapped up the top seed in the Big East tournament, beating
Villanova 59-45 Saturday.

Chevon Troutman had 17 points and Carl Krauser added 11 for the
Panthers (27-3), who finished 13-3 in the Big East for the third
straight season. Connecticut can tie Pitt for the regular-season
title by beating Syracuse on Sunday, but the Panthers own the
tiebreaker.

Pitt finished first despite playing arguably the toughest
schedule, with home-and-home games against No. 7 Connecticut, No.
24 Syracuse and Notre Dame and road games at Seton Hall and No. 12
Providence.

"To win a 14-team conference that's one of toughest in the
country, with an unbalanced schedule, is quite an accomplishment,"
said Dixon, Pitt's first-year coach. "These guys have done
something very special."

Pitt joins Connecticut (1994-96) as the only team to win or
share a Big East regular-season title in three straight seasons.
The Big East played in divisions from 1995-98 and 2001-03 and thus
didn't have a single champion those seasons. Pitt's 27
regular-season victories are a school record, topping the 25-4 in
2001-02.

Allen Ray scored 24 points for Villanova, which led 17-3 midway
through the first half only to be held to 28 points the rest of the
game. The Wildcats (14-15, 6-10) lost their fifth in a row and
seventh in eight games and can be seeded no higher than 10th in the
conference tournament.

Villanova began the day tied with Virginia Tech and West
Virginia for the ninth seed, but Virginia Tech beat Georgetown
60-55.

"You hope when you hold a team to 17 points in a half, you'll
be up 17," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But they play
defense so well, they still made it difficult for us to shoot. Even
though their shots weren't falling early, their defense is so
consistent they didn't suffer any letdowns."

Pitt senior Julius Page wasn't unnerved by the big deficit or by
missing his eight shots.

"You can't get scared," said Page, whose five points came at
the foul line. "As quick as you get up, you can lose the lead. We
just had to take our time. We weren't too scared about it. No
matter how bad we shot, you can stay in the game if the other team
can't score."

Villanova became the ninth team to score fewer than 50 points
against Pitt, which allows an average of 56.5 points.

After the game, Pitt honored Page, Jaron Brown and backup center
Toree Morris, who combined to win more games than any senior class
in school history. With Page and Brown as starters, the Panthers
are 84-14 the last three seasons.

But it was a freshman, Taft, who was most responsible for yet
another comeback victory by a team that has rallied from
double-digit deficits to win three times in its last nine games.

"I played hard because I didn't want the seniors going out with
a loss," said the 6-foot-10 Taft, who said after the game he would
return to Pitt next season.

Pitt followed up one of its best games this season, an 88-61
rout at No. 12 Providence, by making only one of its first 12 shots
and scoring only three points in the first 12:38 of play.

Taft, who scored a season-high 24 points at Providence, got the
comeback going by scoring four consecutive baskets -- the last a
one-handed dunk putback of Troutman's miss.

Villanova led 22-17 at halftime, but Taft got the Panthers
started on the 16-0 run by scoring their first two baskets of the
second half. Troutman tied it at 24 with only his second 3-pointer
of the season, then added another basket and two free throws on a
run finished off by Brown's 3-pointer that upped Pitt's lead to
33-24.

Villanova rallied behind Ray's outside shooting to tie it at 37
with eight minutes remaining but, after Taft's free throw started
the 14-0 run, a technical foul on Wright led to a pivotal
four-point possession. All four points came on Carl Krauser free
throws, and Pitt went on to seize a 51-37 lead.

"We were concerned with getting into a half-court game and them
pounding in the second half, and when they really got into their
stuff, we couldn't score," Wright said.