For a while, it looked as if college basketball would need a new No. 2-ranked team. Pittsburgh -- that's veteran and unbeaten Pittsburgh -- had all it could handle against a precocious pack of University at Buffalo Bulls.
Yet the Panthers' reputation, at least during the regular season, is that they solve nearly every crisis and escape nearly every predicament. It happened once again on Saturday.
UB, too young to know it was supposed to be cannon fodder for one of the nation's elite teams, fell to Pitt, 70-67, in front of a standing-room only throng of 6,350, the third-largest crowd in Alumni Arena history. The Bulls took a 42-35 lead into halftime and led by 10 with 14:09 remaining but scored only 14 points for the remainder of the game as Pitt (10-0) increased its defense pressure.
"I'm glad that we came out and fought the whole game," said UB point guard Eric Moore. "I'm a little disappointed that we gave them the game at the end. We had some mental lapses toward the end and it's something that we have to learn from."
The Panthers smacked away the Bulls' upset bid with defense that led to chilly three-point shooting from UB (6-4) in the second half. They rattled the Bulls into 10 of 30 shooting from the floor and just 1 of 11 from three-point range in the final 20 minutes. Senior Yassin Idbihi, who finished with a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds, was just 1 of 10 from long range and 8 of 22 overall.
"We focused on him in the second half," said Pitt center Aaron Gray, who finished with a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds. "That's how we got back in the game."
The Panthers showed poise down the stretch when they took the lead for good with 4:29 remaining after two free throws by Levon Kendall.
"A lot of teams," said guard Levance Fields, "would have lost this game."
They almost did as it appeared UB's upset would not be denied. Youth was being served. After huge losses to graduation the last two seasons, few gave UB any chance at all to take down a team like Pitt, which has genuine Final Four hopes.
"Our guys are hurting now, there's pain," said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon. "We came to win."
There was Moore, who tormented the Panthers with 14 points, hitting big shots that built the shocking early lead. The sophomore from New Jersey played all 40 minutes and didn't commit a turnover.
And sophomore Andy Robinson, who scored 12 points from various angles and handed out five assists. And senior Parnell Smith, who held his own inside against the taller, bigger Panthers with 15 points and eight rebounds.
"He plays bigger than he is," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.
All were needed to keep pace with the Panthers and it still wasn't enough to win. UB led, 53-43, with 12:31 left but then proceeded to commit three consecutive turnovers and misfire on back-to-back three-pointers. Suddenly the lead was down to one with 9:24 remaining.
The Panthers took their first lead since 2-0 when the cat-quick Fields stole a pass from Greg Gamble and by the time UB figured out what happened, Fields had a layup and Pitt led, 59-58. Idbihi hit a jumper to give UB its last lead but Kendall hit two free throws with 4:29 left to give the Panthers a 61-60 advantage.
Still, Buffalo had a last gasp. After Mike Cook was called for an offensive foul with 27 seconds left and Pitt leading, 68-65, Witherspoon called a timeout to set up a play and send the game into overtime. The Bulls ran the play for Idbihi, who missed his ninth three-pointer of the game but Smith grabbed the rebound and scored with 1.7 seconds left. UB immediately called timeout.
The Bulls had a prayer if they fouled quickly and sent Pitt to the line, but Fields broke free for an open layup and scored at the buzzer. Game.
"It was a good experience for us," Witherspoon said. "But we have to find a way to get better."