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Pitt claims Big East crown

| Sunday, March 16, 2003

NEW YORK -- Brandin Knight stood at the foul line with the ball -- and the championship game -- in his surgeon-like hands. Off to the side, coach Ben Howland slouched in his seat, his tie loosened and his mind at ease.

A sense of calm permeated the Pitt basketball team. The missing jewel was about to be added to the Knight-Howland legacy, one that will leave an indelible mark at the University of Pittsburgh for years to come.

The first free throw went right down. Nothing but net. The second did the same, giving the Panthers a 12-point lead with 1:41 to play.

Howland jumped to his feet. Knight raced downcourt. The crowd shook Madison Square Garden with the thunderous chant of, "Let's go Pitt, Let's go Pitt."

All that was left were the final few seconds to tick away, before the Panthers could celebrate a 74-56 victory over nemesis Connecticut.

And, all at once, the Panthers put their past two title-game disappointments to rest and walked away with the first Big East championship trophy in school history, breaking a 21-year drought and ending a two-game losing streak in the final.

"We didn't want to be the Buffalo Bills of the Big East Tournament," said Knight, whose career win total at Pitt stands at 87. "It was time for us to make some history."

Nothing was going to deny Knight, the team's point guard and leader. He injured his right ankle the night before in the semifinals and was listed as questionable, but wild Huskies couldn't keep him off the floor. He fought through the pain to ring up 16 points.

"The only way I wasn't going to play was if I couldn't walk," Knight said.

Nothing was going to stop Howland, either. Pitt's fourth-year coach had his team ready for this historical night, a night it had pointed to for 365 days, a night that would wash away title losses to Boston College and Connecticut, respectively, the past two seasons.

"I'm just happy for our fans," Howland said. "They finally got to be part of something like this."

Of course, Howland, Knight and the rest will tell you it's far from over for these Panthers, at least if they can help it. They enter the NCAA Tournament next weekend with a 26-4 record and the potential to earn a No. 2 seed, with a longshot for a top seed. The NCAA will announce the tournament field today at 6 p.m.

"We're not worried about where they send us -- Nashville, Boston, Indianapolis," Howland said. "We just need to be ready."

Connecticut (21-9), which defeated Pitt in double-overtime in the 2002 final, will also continue the season in the NCAA Tournament

For Pitt, Julius Page earned tournament MVP honors. Knight was named to the first team.

And even though they were the only two Panthers recognized, this tournament title was as much a team effort as there could be. Junior forward Jaron Brown finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, Page had 16 points and three boards, Knight had the 16 points and six assists and Chevon Troutman had 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting from the field.

Page earned the MVP trophy as much for his defensive prowess as for his work on the offensive end. He held Connecticut star guard Ben Gordon to 13 points on 5 of 18 shooting from the field, after holding Boston College star Troy Bell to 7 of 20 shooting a night earlier in the semifinal.

"To me, Brandin is my MVP," Page said. "He came out here and played hurt. He's our leader."

Pitt won the battle of the boards 35-29 and hit 45.5 percent of its shots. Connecticut got 15 points from guard Taliek Brown and the 13 from Gordon, but no other Huskies reached double digits, thanks in large part to a Pitt defensive effort that attacked Connecticut and got them in foul trouble, fouling two Huskies out and getting to the foul line 25 times, hitting 18.

The Panthers celebrated for 30 minutes afterward, receiving their trophy, cutting down the nets and embracing one another, releasing all the demons of years past.

Seniors Knight, Donatas Zavackas (five points, four rebounds) and Ontario Lett (four points, five rebounds) did all they could to savor the moment. This was their last chance. They would not be denied.

"Finally," Knight said. "Finally, it's ours."

The first half offered everything expected from a championship game between two of the premier teams and coaches in the conference. It featured five lead changes, three ties and enough big-time shots, blocks and rebounds to keep a crowd of 19,258 on the edge of their seats. Pitt went into the break with a 36-35 lead.

The Panthers eventually took over in the second half with a 6-0 run that gave them a 46-40 lead with 14:43 remaining. Page hit a jumper in the lane, Brown hit a floater, then Page punctuated it with a steal in the paint and a coast-to-coast break that ended with him swooping in for two points. Connecticut closed it to three points on a 3-pointer by Gordon, but a layup by Troutman and a bank by Lett moved the advantage to 50-43 at the 11:22 mark.

Zavackas was called for a technical foul 15 seconds later for jumping out of his seat when Lett was called for a foul, but the Huskies made just one free throw and turned the ball over on the ensuing possession.

That pretty much sealed it, as the Huskies got as close as four with nine minutes left, only to see Pitt answer with a 3-pointer by Knight. Game over.

"Connecticut is a great program," Knight said. "After this, maybe people will say the same about us."

Notes:

Connecticut center Emeka Okafor finished with eight points and seven rebounds. ... Pitt went on a 9-3 run to take a 10-point lead with 2:07 left after Lett was called for his fifth foul. Lett walked off the court and pounded a Gatorade cooler, causing water to fill the court near the Panthers bench. He was not called for a technical foul. ... Connecticut's Okafor had eight points and three blocks. ... Knight played 37 minutes. ... Troutman, who had been nursing an ankle injury, played 30 minutes. ... Page averaged 13.3 points per game in the tournament.

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