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Pitt, Colorado overcame big blows during path to NCAA Tournament

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Durand Johnson works with his teammates during practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Durand Johnson (right) smiles, as coach Jamie Dixon gathers his team during the Panthers' practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Durand Johnson (left) and James Robinson share a laugh during the Panthers' practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Colorado junior Spencer Dinwiddie watches his teammates practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pitt's Durand Johnson stays upbeat during a team practice Wednesday, March 19, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Spencer Dinwiddie saw Pitt's Durand Johnson tear an ACL on “SportsCenter” on Jan. 11 against Wake Forest, the Colorado star had no idea that he would suffer the same injury the next day.

Or that their paths would cross two months later.

Pitt and Colorado had to deal with the devastating blow of losing a key player and endure the ensuing midseason slump, then rally to finish strong. The Panthers went 10-8 without their high-energy sixth man. The Buffaloes finished 9-8 without their point guard and top scorer.

They will meet in the NCAA Tournament when No. 9 seed Pitt (25-9) plays No. 8 Colorado (23-11) in a South Region second-round game at 1:40 p.m. Thursday at Amway Center.

When the Panthers lost Johnson, a 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore who averaged 8.8 points, it not only robbed them of a dangerous 3-point threat who could stretch the floor, but also one who Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said was their best perimeter defender.

Fortunately, Pitt had a pair of fifth-year seniors in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna who played through nagging injuries and carried the Panthers to their 12th NCAA tourney appearance in 13 seasons.

“It changed a lot of things and what we wanted to do,” Dixon said. “He was one of our best five players. What we wanted to do was get him on the floor with Lamar. That was probably our best team, putting the four perimeter guys out there and playing that way.”

For Colorado, losing Dinwiddie left his teammates looking for answers and wondering who would elevate his game.

“You had to do it on the fly. It's not like you can call a timeout,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “He was a legitimate first-round pick. To lose that caliber player three games into the conference season was a big blow.

“It wasn't so much his points — he was our leader in scoring and assists — but he was our best perimeter defender and brought a lot of confidence and swagger to our team.

“We recalibrated and figured out how to win games without Spencer. Our margin for error has gone out the window. For us to win games, we have to play well.”

Colorado got double-figure scoring from 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Josh Scott, 6-2 junior guard Askia Booker and 6-7 sophomore swingman Xavier Johnson.

The similarities don't end there. Each coach preaches defense and rebounding, principles that offset losing a scorer. Each ended his regular season with an overtime game, Pitt winning at Clemson and Colorado losing at Cal. Each won two games in his conference tournament before losing to a No. 1 seed (Pitt to Virginia, Colorado to Arizona).

Now they are trying to advance at the other's expense.

“Losing Durand was a big loss, and (Dinwiddie) was their best player,” Patterson said. “They're not on the court, but they're still there. Durand brings energy to this team. He still gets us going, so we click as he clicks. I'm sure they do the same. Just like us, they figured out a way to keep winning and get Ws.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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