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March 1, 2008

Pitt 'steals' one from Syracuse

Oh, how the times have changed. Syracuse once owned decade-long winning streaks over the Panthers in football and basketball. The Pitt football team has won five of its last six meetings with their Syracuse counterparts. Now, the basketball team has won its last four games over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, an idea that 10 years ago was flat out impossible.

If there are any doubts about Pitt being a tournament team or not, the Panthers answered its critics today with an 82-77 win at the Carrier Dome today. The Panthers improve to 21-8 overall, 9-7 in the Big East. Syracuse drops to 17-12, 7-9 in the Big East.

The Panthers can be labeled one of those so-called dangerous tournament teams. The Panthers have eight games decided by five points or less this season. They own a 5-3 record in those games. With buzzer-beating wins over Duke and West Virginia already under their belt, Pitt added one more exciting finish to its 2008 resume.

The win helps the Panthers immensely in terms of seeding for the Big East Tournament. With West Virginia's loss at UConn today, and Pitt's win, both teams are even at 9-7 in conference play. As if Monday night's game needs any more incentives, the winner clinches at least sixth place in the conference standings

Pitt did have trouble all day defending the Syracuse trio of Donte Greene, Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris. They just didn't have an answer. The first half belonged to Flynn, while Harris and Greene were instrumental in building an 11-point second half lead. The three players combined for 69 of the Orange's 77 points

As impressive as those three were all day, the Panthers proved it takes a whole team to get a win. Five Panther players finished in double figures. Pitt was led by Sam Young's 19, and followed by 17 points from Keith Benjamin, 13 points from Levance Fields, and 12 each from Gilbert Brown and Ronald Ramon.

Fields' biggest contribution came from the free-throw line, as he was 8-for-8 All season long, Pitt has seen other teams beat them with free throws, while not contributing much of their own. Today, Pitt was able to reverse the trend. The Panthers were 15-of-17 from the free throw line, while Syracuse was 9-of-15.

It was as uncharacteristic a win as the Panthers have had all season. In its last two games, the Panthers have a combined 34 assists to 10 turnovers. Today, they had 14 assists to 12 turnovers. The Panthers assisted 14 times on 29 field goals, also a number uncharacteristic of a Jamie Dixon coached team. Benjamin, a guard, was its leading rebounder, with seven, and the Panthers shot well from three-point range in the second half.

It was a wild first half. It started off much like the UConn game. Pitt forced 13 Syracuse turnovers, while the Panthers turned the ball over seven times. With such a close margin at halftime, there were other things that factored into a two-point Syracuse lead. Pitt made 14 field goals, compared to 13 for Syracuse. The only problem that despite shooting 42.4 percent in the first half, Pitt attempted 33 shots, to 23 for the Orange.

The biggest catalyst for Syracuse's shooting percentage was the play of Flynn. Entering the game, Flynn was averaging 15 points a game. He scored 16 in the first half alone, and was 4-of-5 from three-point range. Pitt, as a team, was 2-of-11. Benjamin and Brown made enough key plays to keep the Panthers close. Benjamin had nine points at the half, while Brown provided one of the best bench performances of the season He had four points, but he was coming up with loose balls, rebounds, and was distributing the ball well. He had four rebounds, two steals and two assists in the first half

Blair played just six minutes in first half, thanks to two early fouls. Brown's four rebounds kept the game close. When Blair started the second half, He picked up three quick rebounds and scored another basket. He kept the Panthers within two. Though he was the only Panther starter not in double-figures, the rest of the team did the rebounding. Blair still made his usual share of big plays, only in this game, he had more of a supporting cast.

Syracuse came out with its 2-3 zone, as expected. There are two ways to beat a 2-3 zone. Either take outside shots, or penetrate and dish outside. Pitt was able to get good looks at the basket early, only they were not making them. Instead, Pitt chose to dribble penetrate, then feed. Though they only had 14 assists on 29 field goals, they did have six assists on seven three-pointers made in the second half. As a result, the Panthers were up 57-56 midway through the second half.

While Pitt was having newfound success from three-point range, Greene kept answering for Syracuse in the second half. He scored five buckets in a row, while Pitt was on this hot streak. If they could've found a way to defend him, the Panthers could've extended their lead. Syracuse was now up 61-57, and both Flynn and Greene were over 20 points for the game.

When it wasn't Flynn and Green, it was Harris. He put the Orange up 65-59 with a little over seven minutes left. When one or the other wasn't scoring, they were feeding each other. Harris pushed a fast break, then fed cross-court to an open Flynn, who drained yet another three-pointer. Neither team held a lead more than six, but with 5:49 left in the game, Syracuse was up 70-59. Much like losses at Marquette and Notre Dame, this one had a similar tone, and things weren't looking good for Pitt.

Trailing 75-64, Pitt was able to put muster one last run. Syracuse was looking to run the clock out. It was here that the Panthers were able to come up with some key stops, something they could not do against Louisville. Fields got a three-pointer, then Ramon took an inbounds pass away and layed one in. Pitt's 11-point deficit was trimmed to four, at 75-71.

On its next defensive series, Pitt blocked a shot. Benjamin hustled to the loose ball, and was fouled. The Panthers took over possession with a chance to make it a one-possession game. Fields found a gap in the 2-3 zone, and drove to the bucket. He was fouled, and made both of his free throws. Pitt trailed 75-73 with two minutes left.

Flynn wasn't done scoring though. He answered Fields with a driving layup, with 1:32 left, putting Syracuse up 77-73. It was his 28th point of the game, tying a career-high. It seemed to be the perfect finishing touch.

Luckily, the Panthers answered. Brown answered for Pitt with his second three-pointer of the game, as Pitt was within one, at 77-76. After starting 2-of-11 in the first half, Pitt was 7of-15 from three-point range in the second half, arguably its best performance of the season.

Down 77-76, there was still enough time for more dramatics. Pitt struggled on defense all game, but was able to force two turnovers off the in-bounds pass, in the final minutes of the game. After forcing the earlier one, that brought them to within 75-71, Benjamin and Young combined to force one last one. Young stole it, and fed Benjamin, who layed the ball in. The Panthers were up 78-77 with 8.8 seconds left While Young was one-point shy of his fourth 20-point game in a row, this was by far his biggest play of the game.

Flynn pushed the ball one last time. Syracuse had success in transition all day, and Flynn was near perfect from three-point range. Fields defended him, and his three-point jumper from the baseline bounced off the rim. Fields came up with the rebound, and was fouled with 1.5 seconds left. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim disagreed, and was called for a technical foul. That sent Fields to the line. He made his first two off the technical, putting the Panthers up 80-77. He converted the second set, putting the Panthers up 82-77, capping the improbable Pitt comeback. After trailing by as many as 11, with five minutes left, Pitt closed the game out with an 18-2 run.



Tony Greco can be contacted at pittpath@hotmail.com..




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