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UB striving to stand tall against Pitt Bulls not in awe of No. 2 Panthers

Here comes the No. 2-ranked college basketball program in the country, so there's no need for introductions.

Pittsburgh is a familiar enough name, somewhere close to the every-week-on-TV faces of Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. The University at Buffalo knows exactly who's coming to town.
That's why several UB students braved frigid temperatures and pitched tents outside of Alumni Arena -- affectionally dubbed "Reggieville" -- Friday night to be first in line for tickets. It's also why a sellout crowd of over 6,100 is expected when the Bulls (6-3) host the unbeaten Panthers at 4 this afternoon.

This is the program's biggest game since No. 7 North Carolina visited Alumni Arena in 1999 in the UB coaching debut of Reggie Witherspoon. UNC escaped, 91-67, that night after UB held a 40-35 halftime lead before a then-capacity crowd of 8,926.
"They're No. 2 in the nation, coming in undefeated and we're coming off a loss and hungry for another win," said UB sophomore swingman Greg Gamble. "To have an opportunity like this and be nervous is unreasonable. You have to take this challenge and attack it. You have to look at it as an opportunity to help yourself out and help your program out."
Look what Pitt's been up to: A 9-0 record. No. 2 ranking. Visions of a No. 1 seed and another trip to Buffalo for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It's all unusual at Pitt.
A Big East championship? Pitt only has one of those since 1983. The idea of Pittsburgh surviving in the postseason? Only with Bill Cowher as coach. But Pitt has other plans and UB, said coach Jamie Dixon, is a good opponent to face in preparation for the Big East and beyond.
"It's really not any different than a conference game for us," Dixon said. "We know this is going to be a big game for them, it's going to be sold out and it's going to be packed and a hostile environment and that's what we were looking for against a very good team. It's very good preparation for the Big East Conference."
And the Bulls insist they're not intimidated by the Panthers' status or ranking. Eric Moore, the UB point guard, is familiar with several of Pitt's players -- including guards Ronald Ramon and Levance Fields -- after competing with them on the AAU circuit. He played against fellow New Jersey native Tyrell Biggs in high school, while Gamble played against Fields, a native of Brooklyn.
"We're treating this like a regular game," Moore said. "They're No. 2 in the nation, but we're not going to prepare any different than how we prepare for someone like Buffalo State, Tulane or anybody. We treat them with the same kind of respect."
These are special times for UB, whose football team also faced the No. 2-ranked team when it visited Auburn in the fall. But the no-big-deal attitude is a reflection of Witherspoon, who takes to pregame hype the way a child takes to broccoli.
"We've had games where we played on national TV before," Witherspoon said. "I don't think they'll be awestruck. That doesn't mean Pitt won't be very good, and the challenge is going to be very big, but I don't think that they'll spend a lot of time [on] a lot of people being in the stands because they've played in front of sellout crowds before."
The key for UB is containing Aaron Gray, the 7-foot, 270-pound senior center, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds in Pitt's last win over Duquesne. Gray averages 16.6 points in the Panthers' everybody-lends-a-hand offense and 10.8 rebounds.
"I've seen them play on TV a couple of times and I know they hustle and play very hard," said UB senior Yassin Idbihi, who draws Gray as a defensive assignment. "They play good defense and I have a lot of respect for them. But [today] is about us."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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UB VS. No.2 PITT: Tipoff: 4:00 p.m. * Alumni Arena

TV: RTN 11 (WNGS-TV) Radio: 1520 AM * All-time series: Pitt leads, 6-1

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