Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Sometimes the actual event doesn’t match the buildup

#4 Syracuse vs #5 Pittsburgh seemed to be heading that way as I drove through Pitt’s campus towards the Petersen Events Center.

Scalpers were on the corners by 4:00 PM, a full three and a half hours before the 7:30 tip.

The students were lined up in front of the building by 4:45 and when they opened the door for them they came sprinting in screaming. The ESPN cameras were there to film them of course but it wasn’t that fake “oh my we’re on ESPN lets act like banshees” type enthusiasm. No, these kids were ready for ball.

By the time DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” started pounding, with the students rocking like they were at an actual show and following the chorus’ instructions to a tee, I half expected the Oakland Zoo to part down the middle and Ludacris to appear and drop his verse.

It was electric.

Spine tingling.

I purposely looked down my row to my right to see if I could tell whether the rest of the media there were similarly moved.

Some were uneffected, had probably seen it before and were no doubt worrying about their deadlines (feel sorry for them).

Some hid it well.

Some had little smiles on their faces.

Some were in slack-jawed awe.

Yeah, there was no way in hell the game could top this.

Then the game started, and like Rasheed Wallace so eloquently said — ball don’t lie.

And the truth this game provided was that Villanova better bring their A game when they face either of these teams because, quite frankly, I can’t imagine there’s anybody better in the Big East right now.

Both coaches kind of pooh-poohed it afterwards (I wish I’d been able to ask the question as I would’ve phrased it differently to produce a better answer) but the start of this game was unlike any I’ve ever seen.

Pitt hit the Orange with a 19-0 start and what threatened to be the most fascinating first round knockout since Michael Spinks’ people made him step in the ring with an at-his-peak Tyson. I asked the esteemed gentleman to my left if they had a mercy rule in D-1 hoops. Then the damndest thing happened.

Syracuse countered with a 17-0 run of their own.

Game on!

“Things like this happen from time to time but Syracuse is a very good team so we knew it wouldn’t continue and that they’d make a run,” said Jamie Dixon of the 19-0 start.

And from that point on it was a back and forth frenzy for the rest of the first half.

“If you’re going to get behind by 19 it’s better to do it early,” said Jim Boehiem.

Pitt went in up 31-27, knowing it had a battle on its hands.

Syracuse went in knowing freshmen CJ Fair is a baller supreme.

Fittingly, the second half turned on two defensive plays that oozed athleticism. With 13:04 remaining James Sutherland hit a jumper to cut the Pitt lead to 44-43. Talib Zanna was then stripped of the ball at the top of the key and Syracuse jet Dion Waiters headed the other way for the go ahead layup.

Only the Nigerian out of Bishop McNamara high school had other plans. Instead of putting his head down Zanna did what his 6’9″ frame does better than most, he sprinted back and pinned the shot against the backboard. BLOCK!

Travon Woodall retreived the rebound and headed the other way and found Gil Brown for an emphatic dunk.

46-43 Pitt.

The next play also involved Waiters, another fabulous young player for the ‘Cuse, and Brown. The score had been 67-57 for more than a few minutes. There had been some turnovers as Pitt seemed determined to let the Orange — if they could only hit some shots — back in the game. Another turnover resulted in Waiters streaking down the floor with the ball. “I saw his eyes,” Gil Brown told me afterwards, “I knew he was going to try it and I knew I was going to take care of business.”

The 6’3″ Waiters rose up to bang it and he was met by Brown at the square…and denied.

The final was 74-66 Pitt.

The Panthers, with help from their Zoo, definitely took care of business.

Syracuse, without their best player Kris Joseph, probably wouldn’t mind another shot at them on a neutral court.

Maybe there’s a date available in March, say, in New York City?

I can feel the goosebumps already.

- Pittsburgh got a season-high 21 points from junior forward Nasir Robinson. Brad Wanamaker added 15 points and a team-high 6 assists. The Panthers won the battle of the boards with a 44-30 edge and Gary McGhee grabbed a game-high 13 boards.

- The win pushed Jamie Dixon’s career record to 9-2 against the Orange.

- The win was Pitt’s ninth in a row against a top-5 opponent at the Peterson Events Center.

- The 6-0 start in BIG EAST play is the best ever for the Panthers.

- Next up for Pitt is a 4 PM game at DePaul on Saturday

- Syracuse saw their season-starting 18-game win streak stopped. The 1999-2000 Orange team began the season with 19-straight wins, the school record.

- Freshman CJ Fair came off the bench to score 16 points and grab 9 rebounds. Rick Jackson finished with a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds.

- The Orange played without leading scorer Kris Joseph who suffered a head injury in their win over Cincinnati on Saturday. “We’ll see when we get back,” said Boehim of Joseph’s status for Saturday’s contest with Villanova at the Carrier Dome.

- It was the eighth-straight regular season loss to the Panthers for SU.

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