Pitt proves it can handle the heat

Ralph N. Paulk
| Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Levance Fields had a super career at Pitt, but Louisville often proved to be his kryptonite -- especially at Petersen Events Center.

The Cardinals figured they could wear down Fields with unrelenting pressure. They tried getting into his head - sometimes successfully - to disrupt the Panthers' half-court sets.

On Saturday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't deploy a full-court press until after the Panthers (15-2, 5-0) charged from behind in the final 54 seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime, mostly because Pitt doesn't rely solely on point guard Ashton Gibbs to break the press.

Gibbs, who began the extra period with a 3-pointer that sent an already boisterous crowd into a frenzy, got plenty of help as the Panthers gutted out an 82-77 victory over the visiting Cardinals to remain unbeaten in the Big East.

The Panthers, overcoming 10 turnovers and three charging fouls in the first half, negated the Cardinals' press, largely because most everyone on the floor can handle the ball with care even when Louisville turned up the heat.

"Ashton is a poised point guard, and things don't get to him too much," said guard Jermaine Dixon who had nine points and six assists in the second half. "We're more versatile this year, especially because Gilbert (Brown) and Nasir (Robinson) are able to handle the ball.

"I can see why (Pitino) didn't press and decided to stay in the matchup zone. But I was surprised they didn't press us because they had a lot of success with it last year. I think they felt they could press Levance because they wanted to wear him down because we ran a lot of our sets through him."

Neither Dixon nor Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is ready to pronounce the Panthers are ahead of last year's team. But they're confident no one in the Big East can pressure or force them to abandon their style of play.

"We attacked it and got some layups out of it to start the game," said Jamie Dixon. "Our thought was to attack. Our turnovers were in the half court against the zone."

While Louisville lost for the first time in three games at Petersen Events Center, the Panthers will confront a different challenge at home Wednesday night against Georgetown (12-3, 3-2). The Hoyas, looking to snap a three-game losing streak to Pitt, prefer half-court traps and only token pressure.

The Hoyas, who lost, 82-77, to Villanova on Sunday, face an increasingly confident Pitt backcourt that caused Pitino to alter his defensive game plan.

"Last year, Louisville could beat us by slowing down Levance," Dixon said. "They kept saying that in the newspapers, but this time they were playing a totally different team. You can't slow down Ashton.

"We get pressed harder in practice than we do games. It's kind of easy for us now. Coach Dixon has some great schemes for breaking the press, and they worked well against Louisville."

It was the Cardinals who were flustered this time. Guards Edgar Sosa and forward Jared Swopshire were forced into turnovers and poor shot attempts.

Also, Pitt's pressure caused Louisville to abandon a reliable inside game. Center Samardo Samuels scored 25 points on 12 for 20 shooting but was shut out in overtime.

"We pressured the ball more and made them take more jump shots at the end," Dixon said. "We took them out of their game plan a little bit, and we knew if we could make Sosa have a tough game it would help our chances of winning."

That, of course, is a strategy that worked for Louisville against Pitt. Now, Sosa is feeling Fields' pain.

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