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Recounting top 10 moments in Pitt's Big East history

Kevin Gorman
| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt's Jerome Lane dunks against Providence and breaks the backboard in January 1988 at Pitt Fieldhouse. (Chaz Palla |  Tribune-Review)
Pitt's Jerome Lane dunks against Providence and breaks the backboard in January 1988 at Pitt Fieldhouse. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt's Julius Page dunks as the Panthers comes back from a 13-point deficit against Connecticut during the first half of their game March 2, 2003, at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review)
Pitt's Julius Page dunks as the Panthers comes back from a 13-point deficit against Connecticut during the first half of their game March 2, 2003, at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt center DeJuan Blair reacts to a Panthers comeback against UConn in February 2009 at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla  |   Tribune-Review)
Pitt center DeJuan Blair reacts to a Panthers comeback against UConn in February 2009 at Petersen Events Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Julius Page (left) and Brandin Knight talk at 2003 media day at the Petersen Events Center (Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review)
staff photographer
Julius Page (left) and Brandin Knight talk at 2003 media day at the Petersen Events Center (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

No. 1. Champions at last

Having lost in the championship game the previous two years, Pitt arrived at Madison Square Garden in 2003 with a single-minded focus on doing something no Panthers team had done.

Anything short of winning the Big East Tournament title wasn't even a consideration.

“I didn't want to feel like the Buffalo Bills of college basketball,” said Pitt assistant coach Brandin Knight, a former All-American point guard who was the 2003 co-Big East Player of the Year. “It was an opportunity to redeem those losses the prior years.”

The No. 2 seed out of the Big East West, Pitt reached the championship game in dominant fashion after beating Providence, 67-57, and Boston College, 74-48, in the semifinals.

That set up a rematch with Connecticut, which beat Pitt, 74-65, in double overtime in the 2002 Big East final. Knight still had a sour taste in his mouth, after injuring his right knee in that game and missing a 40-footer that bounced off the rim with 1.7 seconds left in overtime.

Pitt led Connecticut by one point at halftime, but the Panthers held the Huskies to 19 points in the second half. Jaron Brown had 19 points and 10 rebounds, making 6 of 9 field goals and all six of his free throws, while Knight and Julius Page added 16 each in the 74-56 victory.

Page was awarded the Dave Gavitt Trophy as Most Valuable Player after averaging 13.3 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting 47.1 percent (16 of 37) and playing lockdown defense in the three games.

“I was a man on a mission,” Page said. “I don't remember looking at the scoreboard. My whole deal was to play as hard as I could. I had a different focus on that game. I was in such a zone, it's just like a blur.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of that victory, and Pitt's last trip to Madison Square Garden is a reminder of its finest moment in the Big East.

“Being there and tasting it a little bit and being so close to winning a championship, to cut down the nets knowing it's the last time you're going to be in that building as a Pitt player was very special,” Knight said. “That was probably the greatest part about winning it, knowing that was my last Big East game and I went out a champion.”

No. 2: Conquering Connecticut

Pitt had never before beaten a top-ranked team. The No. 4 Panthers pronounced themselves the beasts of the Big East, thanks to the tough play of DeJuan Blair, in a 76-68 victory over the No. 1 Huskies in February 2009.

Blair was dominant in a 22-point, 23-rebound performance that saw him toss Connecticut 7-footer Hasheem Thabeet over his shoulder. Thabeet, coming off a 25-point, 20-rebound, nine-block game against Seton Hall, was 1 for 5 from the field and finished with five points, four rebounds and two blocks against Pitt.

Sam Young added 25 points, and Levance Fields scored all 10 of his points in the final 3:09, making two 3s and four free throws. But Blair was the beast that broke Pitt's 0-for-13 jinx against top teams.

“DeJuan wasn't a preseason all-conference pick that year,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of the eventual first-team All-American and Big East co-Player of the Year. “I think that was what I remember about that game, people realizing how good he was.”

No. 3: Toppling a tough trio

Pitt made its mark in its inaugural season in the Big East by scoring three upsets in an 18-day span in February 1983 at Fitzgerald Field House.

Clyde Vaughan and Andre Williams scored 24 points each, as the Panthers stunned No. 5 St. John's, 72-71, on Feb. 1. Six days later, Pitt beat Syracuse, 85-74.

Finally, on Feb. 19, the Panthers overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 4:25 to defeat No. 14 Georgetown, 65-63. Vaughan had 22 points and nine rebounds and outplayed All-American Patrick Ewing, who finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

The Panthers finished 13-15 but announced their arrival.

“That put us on the map, beating those teams,” Vaughan said. “We just came into the Big East and weren't expected to do anything. The Big East was the best conference in the country. You had Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington, Mark Jackson, Ed Pinckney, Michael Adams. It was a Who's Who. It was unbelievable.”

No. 4: ‘Send it in, Jerome!'

When Jerome Lane caught Sean Miller's pass, took one step and cocked back for a tomahawk dunk on a fast break against Providence in January 1988, no one could have imagined what happened next.

Lane finished with such force that he tore the breakaway rim off a backboard that shattered and rained glass on the floor at Fitzgerald Field House.

The dunk was captured on ESPN's “Big Monday” national telecast and by Bill Raftery's enthusiastic exclamation, “Send it in, Jerome!” It was the most prominent play in a season in which the Panthers rose to No. 2 in the national rankings.

“It was a very, very unique play,” Miller said. “You're dealing with a national television audience and the prime of a basketball season. You had an incredible player make the play. Jerome, the year before, led the nation in rebounding and was arguably one of the top five players in the Big East Conference. It was more about the stature of who he was and that it happened in front of the world.”

No. 5: Another devastating dunk

A fearless 6-foot-3 freshman who could fly, Julius Page knew he wasn't going to draw fouls. So he decided he would dunk on whichever Georgetown player stood between him and the basket.

That it was Ruben Boumtje Boumtje was no deterrent.

Page elevated over the 7-foot center and threw down two of his 18 points, as Pitt beat No. 9 Georgetown, 70-66, at MCI Center. The Panthers held the undefeated Hoyas scoreless in the final 3:48, ending their 16-game winning streak.

“That's definitely, in my opinion, the second-best play in Pitt Panther history, behind Jerome Lane's dunk,” Page said. “(Lane) dunked on a guy, made him fall and broke the glass. That's the perfect storm right there. It doesn't get better than that. If I would've broken the glass on Boumtje Boumtje, then mine would've been best.”

To Page, Pitt's victory holds greater significance.

“Before that, we didn't slay any dragons,” Page said. “That was our first quality win where we stood up against a team that was undefeated and did it at their court. ... That was a statement we could play with some of the better teams.”

No. 6: Remember the Run

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon remembers when the Panthers served as a punch line at the Big East Tournament.

“The thing you remember was the jokes we'd hear about Pitt: The Big East ticket package was one game ticket and three theater seats,” Dixon said. “How many Big East tournament victories did we have prior to (2001)?”

The answer is six in 18 years, but never more than one in any tournament.

In 2001, Ricardo Greer led the Panthers on an unforgettable four-game run to their first Big East tourney final.

Greer had 27 points and 11 rebounds, as Pitt beat Miami, 78-69. Then he had 17 points and eight rebounds in a 66-54 victory over No. 19 Notre Dame. Greer added 12 points in a 55-54 semifinal victory over Syracuse. Pitt's run ended one game short of an NCAA tourney bid, with a 75-57 loss to No. 10 Boston College in the Big East final.

“Ricardo was our leading scorer,” Page said. “We just milked the kid.”

No. 7: Big East champs again

Pitt entered the 2008 Big East Tournament as the No. 7 seed but did something accomplished by only one team before: The Panthers won four games in four days, matching the feat of Syracuse in 2006.

It was the seventh appearance in the Big East final in eight years, but the success at Madison Square Garden had yielded only one Big East tourney title, in 2003. Pitt lost to Syracuse and Georgetown in the final the previous two years.

The road to this title went through Cincinnati (70-64), No. 2 seed Louisville (79-69 OT), Marquette (68-61) and top-seeded Georgetown (74-65 in the final). The Panthers were led by Big East tourney MVP Sam Young, who scored 16 points in the final and had a tremendous blocked shot on Hoyas 7-foot center Roy Hibbert in the final minutes.

“We knew we were the seventh-best team going in, so we went in with that mentality and carried it through,” Dixon said. “When we first got in the Big East, it was a little bit down. The last seven or eight years, all of a sudden you become the premier conference again. I think establishing the Big East as clearly the best conference and being a part of it — it was teams like us that had to step up to make it the best conference — that's what I think I remember.”

No. 8: Pitt beats No. 1 UConn again

For the second time in February 2009, Pitt beat the nation's top-ranked team. Once again, that team was Connecticut.

This time, however, Sam Young stole the show.

Young scored 31 points to lead the No. 3 Panthers to a 70-60 victory over the No. 1 Huskies before a record crowd of 12,908 at Petersen Events Center.

After Connecticut cut a 14-point deficit to 52-50, the 6-foot-7 forward scored on a layup and then threw down a dunk on a pass from Levance Fields, who finished with 10 points and 12 assists.

“I see UConn jerseys, and my eyes light up,” Young said. “I came ready to play.”

No. 9: Hoya destroyas

A year earlier, the Pitt-Georgetown game was stopped with four seconds left and Pitt leading, 70-65, after Jerome Lane and Perry McDonald got into a fight that begat a brawl.

“Once again, it was just a reminder of how intense, how fierce, how competitive you had to be to play in the Big East Conference,” Sean Miller said. “It was unlike any other conference because it was a physical brand of basketball and there was a lot at stake game in and game out, and Georgetown set the standard with that.”

The Hoyas beat the Panthers, 76-57, in January 1989 in Washington, D.C. Pitt wasn't so hospitable when Alonzo Mourning and No. 2 Georgetown visited Feb. 11 for a game at Civic Arena.

Shooting guard Jason Matthews led the Panthers with 24 points. Center Bobby Martin, who sang the national anthem, added 16 points and 11 rebounds. And Miller had 11 assists with no turnovers.

“I was always on a quest to try and do better personally for my team when we played them,” Miller said. “That was one of the games I felt really good about looking back at my own personal career. Having zero turnovers against Georgetown is one thing but having 11 assists, I think that was something that I think any point guard would be proud of. A lot of it has to do with how difficult it was just to play against Georgetown and how ferocious they were and how tough they were and how much they could really pressure you. It wasn't so much about how you played but who you played against, and, at that time, Georgetown was the pinnacle of the Big East.”

10. Upset before the upset

Before Villanova pulled one of the most shocking upsets in NCAA Tournament history, the Wildcats were whipped by Pitt in the season finale March 2, 1985, at Fitzgerald Field House.

Trailing, 40-23, at halftime, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino threatened his starters that they had three minutes in the second half to start playing or he would sit them for the rest of the game.

And that's precisely what he did, at the 17:20 mark.

Pitt won, 85-62.

“From the start, we had all cylinders clicking,” said Pitt forward Charles Smith, who had 18 points and nine rebounds. “I remember handling the ball a lot because they were running a three-quarters press, then a half-court press.”

What was so wild about Massimino's decision to bench his starters is that it was the first year of the 64-team field in the NCAA tourney, so Villanova was worried about whether it would earn a berth at 18-9.

Five days later, Villanova won the rematch, 69-61, in the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats went on to beat Georgetown and win the national championship.

“I never thought they would win the national championship,” Smith said. “I know we matched up against them pretty well. We just had guys that, size-wise, we matched up across the board very well. We didn't feel any intimidation. Not only were we surprised but everybody else. We kind of felt we were the trigger to ignite it.”

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