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Pitt's effort won't cut it on Sunday

| Saturday, March 20, 2004

MILWAUKEE -- Welcome to the Bradley Center, which was transformed as anticipated on Friday night into a din of inequity for the NCAA Tournament.

Home-court advantage• It was more like a home-field advantage, as thousands upon thousands of leather-lunged Wisconsin fans had the place rockin' like Camp Randall Stadium on a Saturday afternoon back in Madison.

The Pitt Panthers weren't in the stands to see and hear the place erupt repeatedly as the Badgers turned a 13-point, second-half deficit against Richmond into a 13-point lead faster than you can say "cheese." They had to have assumed something unusual was happening, as they couldn't help but have noticed the muffled roar in the locker room while in the process of preparing for Friday night's nightcap against Central Florida.

Apparently, the Panthers were distracted by all the commotion.

Make that unnerved.

They took the floor adorned in their new inspirational T-shirts, the ones that proclaim "We All We Got!" on the back.

Then the Panthers played as if the T-shirts were all they had.

Their effort against the No. 14 seed from the Atlantic Sun Conference, "Orlando's Only Magic," according to one sign-wielding supporter, was good enough to advance, barely, which Pitt did via a 53-44 escape.

Still, there was a great deal lacking during the second game that had been detectable in abundance during Wisconsin's homecoming celebration, much more than an electric atmosphere and frenzied spectators.

Most obvious was interior defense; Pitt didn't play any.

Central Florida's Josh Bodden, Josh Peppers and Roberto Morentin shot a combined 5-13 in the first half, repeatedly missing from at the rim or from in the paint. Although entry passes weren't a problem for the Knights, finishing was (Morentin somehow went 4 for 7 amid the brick-laying). Had UCF converted rather than wasted as many open looks from in close as it did, it might have led at the conclusion of 20 minutes. Instead, UCF trailed, but by just 22-18.

Shooting was also an adventure, which is less of a surprise but just as much of a concern for the Panthers heading into Sunday. As it turned out a call from Brandin Knight wasn't the cure-all for Julius Page's lost arc. Page came in determined to think about his shot less and just fire away more often on advice from Knight, and went 1 for 6 from the field in the first half, anyway.

On second thought, maybe Knight isn't the right guy to be giving anyone shooting tips, least of all to Page.

What's next, stock tips from Martha Stewart?

Pitt's stock as a No. 3 seed plummeted during an opening 20 minutes that saw the Panthers convert a mere 35 percent of their shots. They made just seven, in part because they turned the ball over an agonizing nine times.

The Panthers out-rebounded the Knights in the first half, but by just one, at 17-16, including a 4-3 UCF edge on the offensive glass.

Such offenses against all for which Pitt basketball stands would have been easier to rationalize away had the Panthers responded in the second 20 minutes, as Wisconsin had during its remarkable comeback.

But Pitt did no such thing.

Instead, the Panthers found themselves trailing, 32-29, with 12:41 remaining following an open-look 3 drained by UCF's Rob Ross.

Pitt didn't regain the lead until 5:28 remained, when Chevy Troutman stole and in-bounds pass in the Panthers' end and ran the floor for a lay-up and a 37-36 edge (fittingly, he missed the free throw that was tacked on).

Chris Taft went one better than Troutman and converted a three-point play on Pitt's next possession for a 40-37 lead the Panthers never relinquished, but it was never easy.

It'll be infinitely tougher on Sunday against Wisconsin, particularly if this really was all they got after all.

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