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Panthers embrace another trip to Garden

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's J.J. Moore plays against Syracuse at Petersen Events Center Jan. 2013.

Pitt GAMEDAY

at St. John's

Noon

Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/radio: Root Sports/KDKA-FM (93.7), Pitt Radio Network

Records: Pitt 20-7, 8-6 Big East; St. John's 16-10, 8-6

Line: Pitt by 61⁄2

Notable: St. John's is 2-3 since winning five in a row last month. ... D'Angelo Harrison is third in the Big East in scoring at 18.3 points per game. ... St. John's 6-foot-9 Nigerian center Chris Obekpa leads the nation with 107 blocked shots.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Madison Square Garden is the site of Jamie Dixon's first victory as Pitt's coach, a 71-62 win over Alabama in the 2003-04 opener. He's also won 20 other games there in 10 seasons.

Dixon doesn't claim the Garden as a home court.

“But we like to think that way,” he said.

And why not?

With the exception of Petersen Events Center, Pitt has played more games at MSG than at any structure currently in use. That makes Sunday's meeting with St. John's a bit more than just another game. It will mark Pitt's 88th game at the Garden since 1935 (44-43), the third this season and the next-to-last trip to the 45-year-old midtown Manhattan facility before the school joins the ACC.

No. 20 Pitt (20-7, 8-6) returns next month for its final appearance in the Big East Tournament.“We're excited about playing in New York,” said Dixon, who has a 21-13 record at MSG, including victories against Duke, Louisville, Memphis and Georgetown. “We'll have friends there. We'll have family there. We'll have fans.

“Obviously, St. John's, it's their home court, but it's a place we have already played in (this season). It's not normal that you play in a place you already played in earlier in the year.”

Pitt lost to Michigan and defeated Delaware in November in the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Dixon said Pitt made a decision 10 years ago to try to play in New York once a season, a commitment he said will continue even after Pitt leaves the Big East.

“We love going back there. We have done pretty much every tournament that you could get in,” he said. “We always know that we are going to be going back there to play there and recruit there.”

Apart from Big East games, Pitt has played in MSG every year since 2009.

Although Pitt is leaving the Big East, Dixon doesn't want to lose his important connections on New York's fertile playgrounds. Five Pitt players — Tray Woodall, Dante Taylor, Lamar Patterson, J.J. Moore and Chris Jones — have ties to the New York/New Jersey area. Patterson, who played his senior season at St. Benedict's (N.J.) Prep, committed to Pitt in 2007 after its MSG victory against Duke.

For years, Pitt's players have enjoyed the trip for many reasons, especially the chance to go home and play on an NBA court. But there is a more frivolous reason to go back.

Players like to eat from the famous New York food trucks that serve fare such as shish kebab, gyros and eggplant right out on the streets.

“It's a tradition for us,” Moore said.

Dixon builds free time into the players' schedule so they can hit the streets for dinner, even though he prefers to eat in the hotel while watching video and plotting strategy.

“I don't like to wait in line,” he said, smiling.

After all, the game is the thing.

A victory against St. John's (16-10, 8-6), which is 8-5 against Pitt at MSG, could propel the Panthers toward a 4-0 regular-season finish and a more favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. Pitt closes against last-place South Florida and Villanova at home and DePaul on the road.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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