Panthers ready to make run in NCAA Tournament
By Kevin Gorman
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Updated: Sunday, March 17, 2013
Believe it or not, Pitt has experienced something worse than early exits from the Big East Tournament with the dreaded double bye.
Each was followed by NCAA heartbreak.
After blowing their double bye for the fourth time in five years, the Panthers (24-8) are hoping not to duplicate the last-second NCAA tourney losses to Villanova in 2009, Xavier in '10 and Butler in '11. Pitt lost all three games by a combined six points.
Pitt needs no reminders about Scottie Reynolds sinking a last-second shot, Ashton Gibbs missing a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds against Xavier or Nasir Robinson fouling Butler's Matt Howard on Gilbert Brown's missed free throw with a fraction of a second to play.
After losing in the last seconds to Syracuse in the Big East quarterfinals, the Panthers know their fate will depend on how they finish.
“If you finish the way we did, with the record we had in our conference, you've got the ability to beat some people,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We know that. It'll come down to a one-possession game, and we've got to put ourselves in position to win.”
No. 17 Pitt, a lock to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney, will learn Sunday when and where it plays.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Pitt pegged as a No. 5 seed, playing Friday in Kansas City. CBS Sports' Jerry Palm also has the Panthers playing in Kansas City, but as a No. 6 seed. SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean has Pitt a No. 5 seed but playing Thursday in San Jose.
Now, the Panthers need to get over one heartbreaking game to prevent another. They were hoping to leave the Big East with a championship, but couldn't stop the 6-of-6 3-point shooting of Syracuse swingman James Southerland in the first half or Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams late in the second half.
“We were prepared to come into this tournament and win,” Pitt fifth-year senior guard Tray Woodall said. “I was disappointed, but I guess now we've got to focus on the NCAA Tournament.”
The Panthers want to focus on what they did in the second half of their 62-59 loss to Syracuse. After shooting 53.3 percent from the field (including 8 of 13 treys) in the first half, the Orange made only 35.3 percent (although 4 of 6 from 3-point range) in the second half. Pitt was outrebounded, 18-14, in the first half but had a plus-16 margin in the second half.
“I don't think we need any more of a chip on our shoulder. We want to win, regardless,” Woodall said.
“This game in the second half showed what kind of team we really are. We played outstanding basketball in the second half. I just hope from here we're building on what we did in the second half, and erase what we did in the first half.”
What made the loss hard to swallow was that Pitt almost erased a 13-point deficit. The Panthers were within one point when Talib Zanna missed a free throw with 30.1 seconds left and within three when freshman point guard James Robinson committed a turnover.
Pitt had rallied to either tie or win such games during the regular season. Lamar Patterson's 3-pointer at the buzzer forced overtime in a loss to Marquette, Robinson sank two free throws in the final seconds to win at Providence and a tying 3-pointer against Villanova.
“It's a hard one to take,” Patterson said. “I felt we should have won. We had everything set for us. We came back. We were fighting. We outrebounded them. We played defense. The little mental breakdowns, they caught up to us. If we limit those in the (NCAA) tournament, we should do fine. We've got the heart. We've got the will. We definitely want to win.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who guided his team to the Big East final, twice called the Panthers “a very, very good basketball team,” whose combination of experience and depth could make them dangerous in the NCAA tourney.
“They're very physical, good defensively,” Boeheim said. “We had to have a tremendous shooting game to beat them, and it's usually hard to shoot well against them. … They've got good leadership, good seniors. They've got some young players. They're a really good tournament team.”
The Panthers believe they are built for the NCAA tourney, in spite of their history after saying a quick bye-bye to the Big East.
“I'm definitely still confident in this team,” Woodall said. “I think we're definitely a team that's capable of making a run.”
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