Evening. I just got home a short while ago from a weekend visit to the family out east. Spent most of the 375 miles of the drive still thinking about the missed shots, and Drew Neitzel sending in those 3s.
The rational part of my brain knows Neitzel was just hyped and relieved he didn’t get the foul called on his reach-in and he didn’t realize Fields was down; but seeing him screaming and posing towards Michigan State’s end of the court as Fields was writhing on the court and called for an offensive foul still irritates the hell out of me and has me wishing him ill.
Levance Fields, though, took the high road.
On the next possession, as if to prove these guys really do make their living playing the brutish defense Tom Izzo’s teams are known for, the guards combined on the final blow. Neitzel reached in to redirect Fields — who found himself slamming directly into [Kalin] Lucas. The ref called a charge and, cruelly and almost appropriately, the play ended with Fields on the ground writhing in pain.
Pitt lost the ball on offensive fouls four times down the stretch.
“Lucas did a great job getting position,” Fields said. “He got the call. It could have gone either way, but he did a good job on defense.”
This may seem (maybe it is — it’s hard to tell right now) sour grapes, but Drew Neitzel’s game would have driven me insane if he was on Pitt. So maddeningly inconsistent at times.
It didn’t hurt that Neitzel’s here-today-gone-tomorrow offense materialized when his team needed it most. After an erratic 2-of-11 from the field against Temple in the first round, Neitzel found a degree of consistency against the Panthers. Despite a cold stretch at the start of the second half, he finished with 21 points on 6-of-13 shooting. He hit 5-of-8 from three-point range, including a crucial pair at 6:27 and 5:03 of the second half. Those shots seemed to reestablish his swagger; Neitzel followed them by burying a jumper from just inside the arc with 4:18 remaining.
“I love the fact that he took those three shots,” Izzo beamed.
Asked about the 3-pointer he sank from in front of the Michigan State bench after he’d gone cold, Neitzel said simply, “I just stepped in and knocked it down. Throughout the year, I’ve gone through some ups and downs as far as my shooting. … No matter if I miss five, 10 shots in a row, what I’ve got to do is keep shooting.”
Far be it from Izzo to disagree: “He’s our guy. He’s the guy we have to have making shots.”
Obviously from the Pitt-perspective, it was all about how badly Pitt shot the ball. Whether it was Ramon and Benjamin not hitting open looks in their final game or Blair missing easy lay-ups even when the Spartan big men were out. Everyone not named Levance Fields couldn’t seem to connect.
“This is a loss that will hurt, because we could have played better,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
Pitt, which had used its magical run through the Big East Tournament to become a darling of the tourney, missed 20 of 29 shots in the first half and mustered only one field goal in the final 9:41 to see its season end.
“I felt like a lot of shots that we normally make, we missed tonight,” said junior forward Sam Young. “I thought they played great defense, but the shots that we were able to get good looks at, we didn’t knock them down.”
Fourth-seeded Pitt, trying to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in the past seven years, ends the season at 27-10.
There’s a lot to love about this team. To be hopeful for next year. To appreciate what they did accomplish this year — when there were so many things that went wrong. So many questions early. I know that I’ll get to that point. Just not quite yet.