PITTSBURGH: SURVIVE AND 'LEVANCE"
March 26, 2009
For the first time in their history, Pittsburgh has won three games in the NCAA Tournament to advance into the Elite 8, which they will be competing in for the first time since 1974.
It has not been pretty at times as the Panthers have had to scratch and claw for the most part to get past 16th seed East Tennessee State, 8th seed Oklahoma State and, tonight, 4th seed Xavier, but the Panthers are now just one win away from a trip to the Final Four.
"I said this was the best group, Tyrell (Biggs), Levance (Fields) and Sam (Young), that we've brought in," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon of his senior trio. "They've lived up to it. They've got the most wins in school history as a group. A huge number, I can't keep track now, and they've won a lot of games."
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However, after the first 20 minutes, things were looking all too familiar for Pitt, who has lost each of the four previous times they reached the Sweet 16 in the last seven years. Xavier, coached by former Pitt point guard Sean Miller, took a 37-29 lead into intermission and they were doing their damage on the offensive boards and on defense.
"We knew what they were and they came out and played with tremendous physicality and toughness and aggressiveness," said Dixon. "Probably the most physical team we've seen this year."
"They pushed us around for the first half," added coach Dixon.
That was not going to happen in the second half.
Right from the opening seconds of the second half, Pitt was active defensively and aggressive on the boards and with a pair of buckets by DeJuan Blair and Sam Young each, the score was knotted at 37-all by the 15:38 mark. A minute later, Pitt took the lead on a Levance Fields foul shot as Xavier was 0-9 from the floor with four turnovers before Derrick Brown broke the ice with a jumper to put the Musketeers back on top at 39-38 with 13:46 left.
Over the next seven and a half minutes, neither team could gain much separation as both struggled to score. Each team took turns taking three-point leads as the lead changed hands five times. Pitt finally gained some breathing room with a 6-0 run to take a 52-47 lead with just under 5 minutes to go.
Xavier was not ready to lay down, though. Freshman Brad Redford sparked a 7-0 run with a three-pointer to cut the lead to 52-50 and a pair of BJ Raymond free throws tied it.
After Pitt missed opportunities with Young and Blair near the basket, a Dante Jackson bucket in the paint gave Xaiver a 54-52 lead with under two minutes remaining. The Panthers came up empty again, but were given another opportunity after Derrick Brown could not chase down a CJ Anderson toss toward the XU basket without his heel touching the endline. Pitt did not let the opportunity slip away, Levance Fields saw to it.
"I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots," Jamie Dixon would say following the game. "He's made them year after year."
Fields, just 3-9 from the field in the first 39 minutes, took a step-back three-pointer and the 5'11 spark plug of a point guard used all his mite to get it over the out-stretched arms of 6'5 Dante Jackson. The shot was nothing but net...
"I do have confidence, but especially to have my coach and my teammates to believe in me down the stretch," said Fields following the game on why he feels confident to take the biggest shots when his team needs them.
The Panther defense, which held Xavier to just 18 second half points, came up huge once again. Leading 55-54 with 31 seconds left, Fields came up with a loose ball and scored a fast-break lay-up to give Pitt a three-point advantage, 57-54 with under 30 seconds left.
"It really started with (Gilbert)Brown, pressuring (BJ) Raymond in doing what he didn't want to do," Fields said of the game-clinching defensive play. "I think DeJuan (Blair) did a great job hedging out strong. He got a hand on it. And I happened to be anticipating that and once it popped free, I was off to the races."
And the 'monkey' was off Pitt's back as they advanced to the Elite 8 with a 60-55 win.
"I thought the shot that Levance Fields hit says it all about a senior point guard," said Sean Miller afterwards. "There's a reason they're 31 and 4."
Fields was the hero late in the game and finished with 14 points and 6 assists, but Sam Young kept them in it for much of the game. The senior forward finished with a game-high 19 points, including two free throws with 13 seconds left to seal the win for good. DeJuan Blair added a double-double of 10 points and 17 rebounds after having just 2 points and 2 rebounds in the first half.
"Their three best players statistically did a great job," said Miller. "Sam Young, in particular, is really a handful."
For the game, Xavier managed to shoot just 32.8% from the field, including 24% in the second half. Raymond was their high scorer with 15 and Brown added 14. After Xavier dominated the boards in the first half, Pitt turned the tables in the second half and the rebounding battle finished even, with each team grabbing 44 caroms.
"Really, it was the glass," said Jamie Dixon of the key to the second half turnaround. "They were scoring on second shots and they got a lot of kickouts after getting rebounds, second shots. So that was the biggest thing."
With the Sweet 16 barrier finally passed, Pitt feels a sense of accomplishment, but the Panthers are far from satisfied.
"It definitely means a lot for us as players, the coach and the city," said Sam Young. "It's something that everybody has been waiting for for a long time...But at the same time we feel like we've still got work to do."
Fields echoed those thoughts.
"But we came in expecting to win two games, expecting to win our first game Thursday, and that's what we've done," said Fields. "It was dramatic fashion, but once we finish this media, it's on to either Duke or Villanova."
There is a new March motto for Pittsburgh: 'Survive and Levance'. Do it one more time and it is on to Detroit for the Final Four.
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