1:30 PM ET, March 6, 2004
Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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.