Harris: This is Pitt's worst loss yet
WASHINGTON — This was cruel and unusual punishment.
Even for Pitt, which has endured its share of postseason heartbreak, Saturday night's crushing 71-70 loss to Butler in the third round of the NCAA Tournament took the life out of a proud program that appeared to have found its basketball legs during crunch time.
Given an 11th-hour reprieve after Butler went ahead 70-69 with 2.2 seconds to play, senior Gilbert Brown made his first free throw but missed the second to leave the score tied with 1.4 seconds left.
However, with the game seemingly headed into overtime, Nasir Robinson fouled Butler's Matt Howard with 0.8 seconds remaining. The sequence completed an incredible swing of momentum and emotions in the briefest of moments.
Howard, who scored at the buzzer to lift Butler past Old Dominion two days earlier, made his first free-throw and purposely missed the second to seal the victory.
Within seconds, Pitt went from making travel plans for New Orleans to making plans for the offseason.
A week after a shocking loss to Connecticut at the buzzer in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament, it was a scene out of "Groundhog Day" for Pitt.
Given the importance and controversial circumstances leading to last night's frantic finish, it wouldn't be a stretch to describe this as the worst loss in Pitt basketball history.
How many more of these games can Pitt take• It was difficult for coach Jamie Dixon or his players to find words to describe how much this one hurt, but the hurt was evident on their faces.
To their credit, Pitt's players followed their coach's lead and acted with class and dignity while accepting responsibility for the loss. If they felt anger and resentment toward the officiating, particularly at the end of the game — who could blame them if they did• — they didn't let on.
"I'm proud of my players,'' Dixon said. "We didn't lose on one play. We lost throughout the entire game. We got down early and that hurt us.''
"A loss is a loss,'' said Brown, who broke out of a slump and was brilliant with a team-high 24 points in his final college game. "It doesn't matter if it's a buzzer-beater or a free throw. It hurts the same. And it hurts even more because it's our last game.''
Pitt fans can demand a congressional hearing about the poor officiating, and I'd be the first to take up their fight. Both teams deserved better. But we would be overlooking the fact Pitt was never in control of the game.
The Panthers spent the entire first half paddling upstream. They trailed by 12 points, sliced the deficit to one, but found themselves trailing 38-30 at halftime.
Led by seniors Brown and Brad Wanamaker (eight points, seven rebounds, seven assists), Pitt battled back. The Panthers took a 43-41 lead on Wanamaker's jumper with 14:34 remaining. It was their first lead since 4-2.
Senior leadership, the bedrock of Dixon's program, had Pitt looking like a No. 1 seed catching its second wind at the best possible time.
It was an incredible turnaround for a team that struggled to take charge of a game against an opponent that advanced to last year's national championship game.
Pitt was right where it needed to be.
The Panthers built a 53-48 lead on Robinson's layup, but Butler tied the score at 57 and regained the lead at 64-60.
The lack of a killer instinct — referenced by several players during the Big East Tournament — led to Pitt's downfall.
"We lost this game in the first half with mental lapses defensively and things like that. (Dixon is) a great coach, and he puts us in position, but we gotta play the plays," Brown said. "Everything could have been avoided if I make a free throw and Nasir doesn't foul.''
Instead, Brown missed the free throw. It led to Robinson's foul and resulted in a loss that won't be soon forgotten.
"Nothing really surprises me as far as what can happen,'' Dixon said. "You gotta be prepared for everything.''
No one could have been prepared for this.
Butler vs. Pitt
Butler vs. Pitt during NCAA third round action at the Verizon Center March 19, 2011. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
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