March 24, 2007

I’m coming back slowly. Actually, it feels like withdrawal at the moment. Not just with the end to Pitt’s season, but the entire Saturday of nothing until nearly 5 pm. Since September, there hasn’t been a Saturday with me either at a college game or planted in front of a TV watching college football or basketball all day. Now, nothing. I mean, I seriously debated putting on one of the women’s games. Instead, I just drifted around the house making half-hearted efforts at some of the house chores. This is going to take some getting used to.

Well, I’ll talk a little bit about the game. Gene Collier’s column on Friday about summed it up.

No, the painful part of this for Pitt was that these Bruins were virtually dying to get beat, and Pitt simply refused. Rejected the death wish Ben Howland’s team expressed with shrieking clarity in the opening moments of the second half by going nearly six minutes without a field goal.

Pitt’s response? A morbid little blizzard of missed shots, most no longer than the length of Aaron Gray, who missed a bunch of ’em along with Mike Cook and Sam Young.

“A couple of those layups and easy shots go down, the momentum probably shifts right there,” said sophomore Levance Fields. “When we started missing those chip-away layups, eventually they’re going to get the rebounds and then we’re frustrated and start fouling, so they convert the foul shots and just hold us off.”

Pitt never led on the night its season ended at 29-8, never had so much as the sense that it might at long last venture to the prohibited Elite Eight and still never looked very much different from a UCLA team that’ll meet Kansas tomorrow afternoon for a ticket to Atlanta and the Final Four.

It was part of what was so frustrating. Pitt was never out of it. No matter when Pitt was down by 12 in the second half. Scoring was coming so haltingly for both teams, just one little flurry…

Instead, Pitt never found its shot. The whole team struggled and as the game went longer, you could see them press and be more frustrated at the miss. Knowing they weren’t far. But never getting close enough.

Credit has to be given to UCLA’s defense. No matter how much we may wish otherwise. They did a great job of hounding the guards and not letting them get too many open looks. They were exceptional at irritating Gray inside and being well positioned. Even on some of the seemingly easy lay-ins, they were at least there trying and possibly distracting the Pitt players. It was a fair point from Nestor at Bruins Nation.

As usual after watching a classic defensive Ben Ball game, lot of us are seeing the same type of comments from Pitt fans and players about how it was a matter of them not finishing their shots or failing to make layups, like we have heard from opposing fans and players throughout last two years. Once again some of our opponent’s fans are having a hard time accepting the fact that it was the focused, fundamental defensive effort put forth by our team, that resulted in total disruption in the rhythm of Pitt’s offense leading them to take harried shots, and keeping them from executing in offense in general.

Yes and no. I accept it to a point, and as he observes it isn’t the most uncommon lament after playing UCLA. Plus, there is simply the scoreboard and that is the final arbiter — and the winners write the history. That said, the number of open misses starting early in the game was not simply the stingy defense of UCLA. It’s not like Pitt hasn’t shot this way before, even this season.

It’s never all from one team. It’s nice to think so, and I’ve read plenty of it in the comments this year (and almost certainly written it myself plenty of times). When Pitt wins, it’s because of what Pitt did on both sides of the ball. When Pitt loses it’s because of the mistakes made by the players and/or the coach. We rarely credit the other side for what they did or didn’t do because it is all about our team.
Antonio Graves seemed especially crushed with the loss. He tried to be positive, but it seemed he was feeling too upset about not getting past UCLA — about letting the fans and everyone down.

“It’s been a great year,” said the senior guard. “We accomplished a lot of things, but to me, that gets old after a little bit. We have to be able to win the big games. I hope in the future Pitt can win the big games.”

I hope no one ever doubted how much the players wanted to win. You know they wanted to be the ones to bust through at Pitt. Antonio Graves is a great story for Pitt. Another player who worked so hard on and off the court and became the key defender this season.

Part of what has me bummed out about this is knowing some fans that will never forgive Graves, Gray and Kendall for not winning this game. For not winning enough. Everything else gets erased and they become permanent bums. They will hope for Gray’s failure in the NBA as further proof of how bad he was.

I’m disappointed, frustrated and I’ve been upset for the last couple days.

Still, they are Pitt players and they are or will be graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. The way they have played, represented the team and the school these last years have been things to be proud.  They have provided plenty of good memories and moments.

Man, I hate having to be the positive one.

Let me start by saying this is nowhere near a full recap. It’s just some random thoughts. Some of them from before the game, some from after. I just got home and haven’t read what the Pittsburgh papers and UCLA blogs have said.

The end of the season kills me. The cause of all of this might be the fact that the end of basketball season is a bit harder than football. The end of football means the beginning of another year at the Pete. The end of hoops leads to a few months of nothingness.

The Sweet Sixteen is the exact type of talent this team has. We’re certainly not a top 5 team (and how can you be without an amazing recruit?) but we are a top 25 team. I didn’t expect a national championship out of these guys. I do, however, expect players on a top 25 team to make layups. Point blank shots. Tip ins. They lost at least 10 points through missing those type of shots and along with losing those points, it probably end up costing the game too.

Gray (as well as much of the rest of the team) is careless with the ball. He needs to treat it like gold and doesn’t. When you get double teamed, you dish it back outside quickly. Instead, he held it for a while, let the defender get physical with his, and then toss it across the court.

There are all kinds of stats that I could look up for you that involve UCLA really overcoming their season averages. The most obvious one seemed to be free throw shooting. Coming in, the UCLA folks said they weren’t great foul shooters and Pitt fans know that we certainly aren’t. UCLA was 23-26 from the line. Good teams find odd ways to win sometimes — scoring a third of your points from the line is one of those.
Finally, the Dixon-Howland handshake, if you even want to call it that, was incredibly quick. Not sure about what went down.

Expect more breakdown on the ins and outs of Thursday’s game coming over the next few days.

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