Powerful Pitt Pulls Its Own Weight

By Josh Herwitt - December 20, 2007

NEW YORK -- Jamie Dixon didn't know whether to be happy or sad.

On the one hand, his team had just overcome a 12-point halftime deficit to beat the No. 6 team in the country.

And on the other, the Pittsburgh coach quite possibly saw his senior forward Mike Cook play his final game as a Panther after suffering what looked to be a torn ACL in his left knee.

But in the end, it was junior point guard Levance Fields who came to the rescue for No. 11 Pitt, stunning an unbeaten Duke team with a step-back three-pointer with five seconds remaining in overtime to propel the Panthers to a 65-64 victory in the Aeropostale Classic at Madison Square Garden.

"I can't say enough about our players," Dixon said afterward with tears nearly in his eyes. "I can't say enough about the heart of this team because we didn't play well early."

That poor play was certainly evident in the first half, when the Panthers turned the ball over 11 times and shot just 36 percent from the floor.

But there was something different about Dixon's team after halftime, and it started with freshman DeJuan Blair, a 6-foot-7 local product from Schenley High School who many thought was too small and too weak to play the physical brand of basketball that the Big East has been known to play.

Not Dixon, though.

"The guy has tools and he has hands," Dixon said of Blair, who fought hard for 35 minutes before fouling out with 15 points and a game-high 20 rebounds. "He is another guy that everyone thought was too small and maybe not good enough [but] I like him."

Whatever the sentiments were about Blair coming into the game, the Pittsburgh native certainly used them as motivation in going toe-to-toe with highly-touted freshman Kyle Singler and dominating the paint against an under-sized Duke frontcourt, which was outrebounded by a 52-39 margin.

"They wanted to it more," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski confessed. "In the first half we did a good job on defensive boards. In the second half they just took it over. We had some guys that played and didn't have a rebound."

"In the first half we thought we did a good job, and in the second half we kind of checked out," said Singler, who finished with a team-high 17 points along with five rebounds and two assists. "We knew coming in it was going to be a battle and we would have to play like men, and we didn't get the job done."

Getting the job done from the perimeter was even more of a predicament Thursday night for Duke, which shot just 1-for-9 from three-point range after halftime and just 37.7 percent (23-for-61) for the game, a far cry from the 46.4-percent clip that the Blue Devils maintained in the first half.

"There was something missing for us," Krzyzewski added. "Finishes were difficult for us. You just need to convert at a higher percentage if you are going to beat a good team. Hopefully we will learn from it."

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, certainly learned from its mistakes in the first half, one that saw the Panthers knock down only 1-of-8 from three and 3-of-7 from the free throw line before heading to the locker room down 34-22.

"We were fortunate to be down by 12 at halftime, the way we played," Dixon asserted. "We played hard, but we didn't play our game."

But when the second half began and the Panthers needed a big play down the stretch, it was Fields who stepped up to the challenge time and time again, leading his team with a game-high 21 points, four assists, two rebounds and two steals.

Of course, none bigger, though, was his game-winning shot with the Panthers trailing by one and the game clock ticking down below 10 seconds, and it was quite a way for the Brooklyn native to cap off a stellar homecoming performance and send his team back to the Steel City with a perfect 11-0 record still in tact.

"You talk about game-winners all of the time," Fields said about his crowning moment with friends and family watching in the stands. "You hope you can be in a position like that and come through. To win it and to win it like that, it was special."

It was special for a program that was looking to take that next step, yet hasn't always had that go-to player in years past to get it done in pressure situations.

Now Dixon certainly does, yet it's Krzyzewski who ironically can't say the same about his own team right now.

"We should have had more energy and toughness," he affirmed. "Sometimes you get punished in the toughest ways because you are not deserving. You are teased and then you are hit. The game has a way of doing that to you and tonight that is what happened to us. We didn't lose it on the last play, we lost it throughout. It is not one man's responsibility, we are all to blame."

But for Pittsburgh, it did come down to one play, a play that could have Dixon and his players taking that next big step when March finally arrives.

Posted by Josh Herwitt at 11:10 PM on December 20, 2007

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