March 18, 2007

From the official NCAA site, we have a confirmation on Thursday’s game time.

I’ll take it over the 3:00 pm start that places like ESPN and Fox Sports had listed originally. Not sure why they would list what seems like a random time anyways.

Let’s go national for a minute. There isn’t a lot since the storyline desired by many didn’t happen. Luke Winn at has some on the game, and likes what he saw from the team this time as opposed to last year.

Whereas last year’s Panthers, who lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Bradley, might have bowed out in the face of adversity, this veteran team rallied around it. The first situation arose for Pitt late Thursday night, when the 7-foot Gray, their primary size advantage over the Rams, came down with an illness and couldn’t practice on Friday. “Last night, I felt terrible,” Gray said after Saturday’s game. “I don’t know if it was food poisoning or a stomach virus, but I got maybe an hour and half of sleep.”

As Pitt’s Big Queasy recounted the more unpleasant details of his symptoms in the locker room, he was so exhausted that the only way he could stand was with his hands on his knees. He had been limited to 26 minutes and looked delirious at times, but still managed to score 14 points (his season average) and dish out a team-high five assists. Gray was less impressed with his perseverance, though, than he was how many of his teammates had stepped up while he was nauseous. Cook had scored seven early points to help build a first-half lead, Sam Young poured in a team-high 15, and seven different Panthers finished with at least eight points.

Winn actually writes like he believes Pitt has a chance against UCLA. Something that I suspect will be the minority position.

The Sporting News‘ Mike DeCourcy compliments an excellent comeback.

No, we’re not talking about Virginia Commonwealth’s recovery from a 19-point deficit to tie Pittsburgh and force overtime. We’re talking about Panthers guard Levance Fields, who missed two free throws that could have sealed his team’s victory with 2 seconds left in regulation but returned to play a flawless overtime period, which included a 3-pointer that gave Pitt a four-point lead.

Fields’ OT redemption was a popular storyline.

There have been doubts in the season about Mike Cook and how much he is about himself or the team.  I hope after he was limping in the second half but still argued to get in there, the issue is over.

Dixon inserted Cook into the game in overtime, and Cook made two free throws with 19 seconds left to give Pitt a three-point lead.

“I was happy with it,” Cook said. “I trust my teammates. Obviously, I was limping. As a player you want to stay out there. But it was up to coach. At the end of the game he put me out there to make fouls shots. He had trust in me, so I wanted to come through.”

I can’t believe how many media outlets are focused on the idea of the trap and press of VCU getting Pitt. They keep missing the underlying issue. VCU shot 31% in the first half, and until they started hitting shots, they couldn’t set up their press. This is nothing to take away from the Rams, but their vaunted press doesn’t work unless they make their shots and have a chance to set it up. They had very little of it for the first 28 minutes when the shots weren’t going and Pitt could move up-court off of rebounds.
Now as for the VCU position. Their view is that they would have won — or at least kept playing — if they had more time.

“I’m not one for close calls or moral victories,” coach Anthony Grant said. “You win or lose, and we weren’t able to win today. Like I told the guys, to me, the clock ran out. But the heart, the courage and the character these guys showed, like all year long – like all year long – I’m proud to be their coach.”

And last I checked the clock was part of the game. Good to know that they, uh, know they — what? Lost or just ran out of time? The Rams didn’t show total class at the end with their comments.

“I think it was just us,” Walker said of the big deficit. “In the first half, we weren’t taking very good shots and that led to them getting some easy baskets. You play a team as good as Pittsburgh, you can’t give them easy baskets because they’ll make you pay.”

Apparently Pitt’s defense wasn’t the issue.

Don’t worry VCU, you’ll always have Duke.

So, let me get this straight. A columnist in New Jersey — with Rutgers and Seton Hall — wants to talk about the angst of Pitt basketball fans?

Spring Practice: No Rush on QB

Filed under: Football,Practice — Chas @ 3:24 pm

Seriously, I would love to know the logic of spring practice schedules. WVU and UConn were the only ones to start earlier than Pitt. Cinci and Louisville are latest — not for another week and a half or a bit longer. Wisely waiting until after third and fourth round to start practices. I know, some of it has to do with the academic calendar, but still.

The early round of quarterback competition is the lead story starting for spring practices.

For now, their sights are set on winning the starting job. Not since 2004, when Palko and Luke Getsy dueled to replace Rod Rutherford, has Pitt had a wide-open quarterback competition during spring drills.

This derby might not be decided by April 14, when Pitt holds its annual Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field. With highly touted quarterback recruit Pat Bostick of Manheim Township planning to enroll in May, the position might not be settled until training camp in August.

“The quarterbacks, it’s going to take time,” Wannstedt said. “We’re going to have to be smart with what we can do with those guys and not get ahead of ourselves. … We’re going to have a whole different opinion of that position a month from now than we do today.”

Cavanaugh noted that Palko’s indefatigable work ethic rubbed off on Stull and Smith. He said Stull was studying film three hours before practice and that Smith stayed afterward to take extra reps with several receivers.

Both quarterbacks delivered precise passes in drills. Stull zipped a pass to tight end Darrell Strong in traffic and used a pump-fake on a rollout to connect with Pestano on a deep go route. Smith threw a picturesque deep pass that dropped over T.J. Porter’s shoulder on the left sideline, but he later fumbled a snap in 11-on-11 drills.

The sense is that this is battle 1a, the real battle will be in the fall when Pat Bostick arrives. Can he show enough to wrest the job right away?

You know what, though, most Pitt fans will be watching what happens on the lines. Let’s face it, nothing else will matter if the QB can’t be protected, if Pitt can’t get to a QB, if the RBs have no where to run and if the opposition continues to run wild on Pitt.

It also looks like there is some shake-out with players.

Sophomore safety Elijah Fields did not attend practice yesterday and will not be with the team for the foreseeable future because he is suspended for what Wannstedt called a “violation of team policy.” Fields, who is expected to return before the end of the spring, was the third player suspended this offseason. The other two — linebacker Tommie Campbell and defensive tackle Corey Davis — are suspended indefinitely and not expected to return.

I initially thought it was about offseason workouts and conditioning sessions, but I’m now of the opinion that this nebulous suspension is primarily about academics.  The biggest issue for Fields has always been about his academics. Maybe Pitt is using an all-encompassing term, but academic issues seems most likely.

I like that Lowell Robinson will be competing for the starting safety spot. When he was recruited, he was a JUCO All-American at Safety, so not letting him compete there seemed like a questionable overestimation of the depth and talent there (not to mention wasting a year of his eligibility shifting him about).

Maryland and Washington State blew it. UCLA, Pitt, UNC and Ohio State all nearly blew it. Safe to say that it’s better to be in the “almost lost” rather then the “lost” category. So, admittedly, I’m hard pressed to be very negative. It’s single elimination and it doesn’t matter how you won, just that you did.

I mentioned it yesterday after the game and in my AOL post. VCU, for 3 straight games, mounted tremendous late second half runs to get back into games — and in two of them got the win. The part that still impressed me so much about Pitt was that they didn’t quit in the OT. They had lost a 19 point lead. Levance Fields had missed a couple FTs with 2.1 seconds left that could have ended it there. Every intangible and externality was against Pitt. But in the OT — and this was a huge difference from say Xavier — the Pitt players didn’t panic, slump down or give up. They gathered themselves and came out and finished the game.

Now to what everyone else is saying.

Gene Collier’s headline seemed negative about the game, but ultimately the column was about Levance Fields finding redemption in the OT.

For full disclosure, I wouldn’t have given a Buffalo nickel for Pitt’s chances in that overtime. The Panthers were either sick or exhausted or acutely disappointed, if not all three. VCU’s astounding confidence appeared to be climaxing.

“I’m proud of these guys,” Jamie Dixon would find himself saying at the end of that five minutes. “Once we got into overtime, I think we showed our true character and they really had their spirit come out in the OT. I’m proud of them, but I’m not at all surprised.”

That’s one of us.

Pitt started the extra period the way it started the game, pounding the ball low to virus-wracked Aaron Gray, and quickly established a three-point lead that Pellot-Rosa sliced to one with two free throws.

Were Pitt to begin losing oxygen again, it would probably be now, with the VCU press all set. But the Panthers pushed the ball past the time line with maybe a second to spare, and got it into the hands of Fields, who was ready with the second big THUMP!

Fields stepped back from the 3-point line at the left wing (oh you wouldn’t) and fired a signature back-arching 3 over Pellot-Rosa that was about as bashful as the Brooklyn night.

That unlikely shot and all its audacity — the shooter had just missed twice from 15 feet with no one near him — shook VCU for the last time. On the next possession, Fields found Ramon on the right wing for another 3 that made the score 78-71 with 2:11 left, a lead big enough even for a choking victim.

Fields and Kendall both attributed the VCU run to letting up a little soon. I have to say, maybe. It’s good that they take responsibility for nearly losing, but it also detracts from what VCU did. VCU went from 31% shooting in the first half to 50% shooting in the second. Pitt never stopped shooting well in both halves. VCU, when they began hitting those shots — and they weren’t exactly doing lay-ups in that run — then had time to set up their press. Go figure, when they started getting time to get into position, their defensive intensity was able to pick-up.

Of course after the game, Coach Dixon spoke as if it was never a question.

The Panthers will live to see the second weekend of this NCAA tournament. They advance to San Jose to play in the West Regional, but they’ll spend most of the time between now and then trying to catch their collective breath after this superb 84-79 overtime classic, and they’ll wonder how in the world they ever needed five extra minutes to get that done.

“I don’t think there was any doubt in our minds that we’d win the game, even after they made their run,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “It was a group effort picking us back up. Guys really believed in what we were doing.”

The players, naturally reflected that same, “oh, yeah, we knew we’d win,” claim afterwards.

“That’s what this tournament is about,” senior guard Antonio Graves said. “They weren’t going to give up. We never let our guard down. And that showed in overtime. We showed the true character of our team.”
Joe Starkey agrees that the team showed something special in the OT.

Cook came off the bench cold and hit two big foul shots with 19.1 seconds left in overtime to stretch the lead to 82-79. Sam Young (team-high 15 points, six rebounds, two blocks) made two more with 6.6 seconds left to account for the final score – and make it impossible for the scrappy Rams to tie it with a 3.

Pitt led, 58-42, with 8:50 left in regulation, but withered under the Rams’ full-court press and actually trailed, 69-67, with 55 seconds left before Fields whipped a pass to Young for a layup. After B.A. Walker missed a 3-pointer, Fields came back and drew a foul and went to the line.

“The true test of a team, the true character, shows when you (hit) adversity like we did,” said center Aaron Gray, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and a team-high five assists.

After the game, we learned that Gray had been battling food poisoning, didn’t practice on Friday and barely slept. Still he was highly efficient in his time on the Court. Mike Cook suffered a bruised knee near the end of the first half, and was noticeably hobbled in limited action in the second half. And arguably the VCU run may not have happened if Graves hadn’t had to be pulled with his 4th foul.

Maynor shot 2 of 6 for six points in the first half, as the Panthers bolted to a 41-26 lead. Most of Maynor’s points came after Graves picked up his fourth foul with 10 minutes to play in regulation.

Antonio Graves has almost jumped another level in his defensive effort in the post-season. It’s been great to see.

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