February 28, 2007

So, apparently Aaron Gray was not going to go quietly on senior night.

Pitt’s Aaron Gray never has much to say to his teammates in terms of motivational words. He leaves that type of stuff to the more vocal players.

The silent 7-foot center usually leads by actions. But his raspy voice last night told a different story. Gray took it upon himself to deliver a stirring halftime to speech to his reeling teammates, and they responded by staging a come-from-behind, 80-66 victory on senior night at the Petersen Events Center.

“It just felt like the right time,” Gray explained afterward. “We have a lot of guys who are real inspirational, real good leaders. I usually don’t say much. I usually lead by example. I just thought this was my last night. We’re playing for first place. I couldn’t imagine how I would have felt if we let this game slip away.”

And his message:

So Gray stood up before the coaches entered the locker room, an action that got his teammates’ immediate attention.

“We had great energy in warm-ups … but when the game started, we lost it a little bit,” Gray said. “We weren’t having fun out there.”

Gray had six points and six rebounds by halftime, and fellow senior Kendall had eight points and six rebounds. They reached out to the underclassmen at halftime.

Everyone was giving Gray credit for picking his spot to get their attention.

They would get no closer as Mike Cook scored 8 points in five minutes to fuel a Panther breakout, as Pitt went on to win, 80-66.

“We were more aggressive and got more open shots in the second and I was able to knock them down,” Cook said. “Aaron huddled us up at halftime and we responded by being more aggressive on offense and defense in the second half.”

Everybody contributed in this game.

Gray, showing no ill effects of his sprained left ankle, finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds.

Kendall nearly recorded the second double-double of his career, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Graves had seven points, six assists and one steal.

The underclassmen also got into the act. Sophomore Levance Fields scored a team-high 14 points, while juniors Mike Cook (12) and Ronald Ramon (10) also scored in double figures for Pitt. Sophomore Tyrell Biggs didn’t play in the first half but scored seven points after halftime, as forward Sam Young sat the final 20 minutes with tendinitis in his knees.

Well, he did walk gingerly a couple times off the court, but clearly he was not going to let it stop him on the court.

I was very happy that Doyle Hudson was able to get into the game in the end, and hearing the chants of “We want Doyle” honestly had me chanting it from home (my daughter was very confused) because you could here the giddiness of the crowd. It was a such a welcome relief after the last couple weeks of stress, and infighting amongst fans.

This attitude does seem fairly accurate, in summing things up.

Ah, the Sweet 16.

That is why interest in this team is beginning to fade. No one believes that this Pitt season will end up unlike the past five. And with the Penguins’ success across town, a 25-5 record after five straight 20-win seasons doesn’t give people much hope.

All they want to know is whether these Panthers can get past the Sweet 16. And, after Saturday’s loss at Georgetown – the Panthers’ fifth against a ranked team – they are convinced that won’t happen this year.

Talk-show callers and sports barflies and letter-to-the-editor writers are reaching back to the 1980s for a slogan: Same Old Pitt.

The Panthers can’t beat a good team, can’t defend quick guards, have no answer for athletic wings. And now, they can’t shoot. They collapsed last year. They collapsed the year before. They’ll collapse again this year. Sweet 16 this year? How about upset in the first round. After they get that six seed. Same Old Pitt.

And Tuesday’s demolition of West Virginia’s 1-3-1 defense probably won’t convert anyone. Positive thoughts won’t be borne of the 80-66 victory. Few will take solace in the 51-point second half, the stifling defense, the 60 percent shooting from the floor.

None of that means much. The Big East regular-season title doesn’t matter. Anymore, success at the Big East Tournament doesn’t even register.

It’s at least the Elite Eight or nothing, and until the Panthers reach that, their act will be stale.

Still, I’m going to enjoy this one for another day.  Regardless of flaws, questions and everything else. Why? Because Pitt probably knocked the Mountaineers from the NCAA.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock of Pitt’s 80-66 win against West Virginia at the Petersen Events Center last night, the Pitt student section began to taunt the Mountaineers with chants of “N-I-T, N-I-T.”

Heh. Heh.

It’s not just that the Mountaineers lost, it’s that they actually still think they had a good shot at this game, and are stuck blaming themselves.

The Mountaineers made just 11-of-33 3-pointers and two of their most productive scorers — Frank Young and Alex Ruoff — were a combined 0-for-11 on 3s until Ruoff made two meaningless ones in the final seconds. Combine that with 29 percent shooting overall in the second half and Pitt’s 70-percent rate over the same 20 minutes and the outcome was easy to predict.

The really frustrating part to the Mountaineers, though, was that in this one the shots were makeable. That’s not always the case against Pitt’s defense.

“I thought we had better shots tonight than we’ve ever had in this building,’’ West Virginia coach John Beilein said. “We got the shots we like to get against a terrific defense.’’

They just didn’t go in.

“The first game [against Pitt] we didn’t shoot well, but our IQ wasn’t very high and we just didn’t play well,’’ said Ruoff. “Tonight I felt like we played well. Everybody played hard. Everybody played smart. We just didn’t shoot the ball.’’

It’s worth pointing out — again — that the Mountaineers 3-point shooting percentage is 36.1%, and they shot 33.3% on 11-33. That’s a difference of exactly 1 extra made trey (12-33=36.3%). And they shot that way on 3s in both halves. The problem, was they got shut down in the second half from finding good looks inside. This Mountaineer team shoots 54.6% (421-770) on the season from on shots that aren’t 3s. They were held to 11-22 for the game, but the big deal was being held to 2-10 in the second half.

Really, their whole thought that the shots weren’t going ignores the fact that Pitt completely dismantled their defense in the second half. I’d buy it more from them if they said something like “we just didn’t get it done on defense.”  Not only did Pitt shoot 16-23 in the second half, but Pitt only had 4 turnovers in the second half. They were unable to disrupt Pitt’s offense.

That leads to questions in their own backyard about the intangibles of this team.

That cuts to the heart of another question. Does this Mountaineer team have the heart, the confidence, the determination to make a late run?

“This just might bring the best out of us — knowing we really have to play well,’’ said Young. “Knowing we’re really on the bubble.’’

But can the Mountaineers? Is there enough grit in their grouts?

Heh. Again.

They still scored 66 points in the game – 2 more in the second half against the “better” defense than the first half (or only 1 less than the first half with the gimme 3 at the buzzer). Shot the same percentage from 3 in second half. They shot a lower percentage from 2, but did make 9 foul shots, most from driving and being fouled instead of allowed the layup. Know how many foul shots they took in the first half? 2. They scored the same amount of points as shooting 60% from inside the line. We just forced them to do so with the clock stopped, with only the fans playing defense.

I think it was the fact we scored almost as many points in the second half as we did the previous game that made the difference, not our defense. Our defense was the same throughout. We turned the ball over less in the second half on offense, and shot better. Our offense came back for 20 minutes, hopefully its here to stay and we can get on a roll.

Comment by Stuart 02.28.07 @ 6:22 pm

They scored nine points on garbage threes after the game had been decided. In fact they had a garbage three at the buzzer and many of the free throws were shot after they got down by 15 points.

I agree, Pitt played much better on offense. Biggs came in and gave us a huge spark. Gray took control of the huddle right before the second half. That was big. It was great to see. That is why I love being at the game. You don’t get to see stuff like that on TV. We need leadership to make a run and Gray finally stood up and lit a fire under the team. It really didn’t look like we were having any fun in the first half, fans included. Hopefully that changes in the stretch run.

Comment by Omar 02.28.07 @ 7:31 pm

That’s the first I heard of Gray lighting a fire since he said he was coming back to college to win and his teammates better be motivated to win too. Maybe he needs to do it more.

Comment by Kevin 02.28.07 @ 8:26 pm

Pitt obviously has to make it past the Sweet 16 to satisfy the haters. But I doubt that anyone can argue that this is the best team of the Howland-Dixon era. Best guards by far. Best outside shooting by far. And the best frontcourt by far. Whether they hit their stride in the postseason is another story.

But the same old Pitt crap is ridiculous. I went to Pitt from 1994-98 and they didn’t sniff the tournament. We hosted and won one NIT game in those four years.

Of their five losses against ranked opponents (at least Bucknell isn’t in there), they were completely outclassed in two (Wisconsin and Louisville). Wisconsin was a tough place to play and they were ridiculous from the 3. Louisville was a funk. These are 20-year-olds so you can expect that. Marquette was came down to a foul call, at Georgetown was tied with 3 minutes to go and Pitt had open shots galore and didn’t hit them. Oklahoma State was a winnable game against a good team on the road.

Not bad for a team that no one gives any respect.

Why I’m so positive going into March is one reason: Pitt can shoot the ball. And if they get hot, especially Cook and Graves then watch out.

Yes, you can complain about how the guards don’t penetrate and Gray misses a ton of free throws, but this is Pitt’s best chance to reach the Final Four since it became a real program (meaning post Ralph Willard), so enjoy!

Comment by Matt in NYC 03.01.07 @ 12:41 am

Has anybody heard Dixon talk about any special efforts to improve Gray’s FT shooting? Can they bring in a shooting expert, just for a few days, to at least try something, because he’s getting worse and it’s going to cost us in the tourney.

It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if Gray could actually make a shot when he gets fouled, but he just doesn’t seem to have the strength to do that.

Comment by Carmen 03.01.07 @ 8:56 am

Matt – are you saying they “are” or “aren’t” the best team – i’m thinking you meant “But I doubt that anyone can argue that this isn’t the best team.”

Many still think the 02-03 team was better, and will base it on the final result.

If you think that the sum of the parts is the total of the greatness, then this team may be it. But if you think that the totality of the team is greater than just the sum of the parts – then maybe that 02-03 team was better.

If this team comes together, goes deep in the tourney, and shoots like they did in the beginning of the season, then yes, this may be the greatest team. It may already be the most skilled, but the jury is still out on “best.”

Was Uconn’s team last year the best they’ve ever had?

Anyone see a little Knight in Fields and (i forget who got the steal) at the end of the WVU game when they forced that turnover, even when the game was already in hand? Reminds me of Knight sliding across the floor to steal the inbounds against uconn in the BE finals…

Comment by Stuart 03.01.07 @ 6:49 pm

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