Panthers atone after yielding lead to VCU
The way to San Jose nearly took a stunning detour home for Pittsburgh.
But after frittering away a 19-point lead in the final 12 minutes of regulation, the third-seeded Panthers averted one of the biggest collapses in recent NCAA Tournament history Saturday night by pulling out an 84-79 overtime victory over Virginia Commonwealth in a second-round classic at HSBC Arena.
A crowd of 18,801 saw the Panthers (29-7) open overtime with a 9-2 run and hold off yet another VCU comeback to earn a trip west against UCLA -- and former Pitt coach Ben Howland -- in Thursday's West region semifinals.
Pittsburgh had a 51-32 lead with 12:10 left before the 11th-seeded Rams used full-court pressure to roar back.
The game was tied at 69-69 when Pitt sophomore guard Levance Fields clanked two free throws with 2.1 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
But in the extra session, Fields earned some retribution by drilling a three-pointer and feeding Ronald Ramon for another trey that gave Pitt a 78-71 lead.
The Panthers survived even though they nearly blew that edge as well. B.A. Walker's three-pointer with 10 seconds left was off for VCU and Pitt's Sam Young wrapped up the win on two free throws with 6.6 seconds left.
"Once we got into overtime, we think that shows our team, their true heart and how they responded," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "It takes a lot to do."
Fields had 10 points and was one of five Pitt players in double figures. But he missed badly on the two free throws -- one long, one short -- after being fouled on a drive to the basket as the regulation buzzer loomed.
His big trey in OT came from the left of the key over VCU guard Eric Maynor, whose jumper here Thursday in the final seconds beat Duke.
"My teammates and coaches came up to me and told me to put it behind me," Fields said. "We had five more minutes to get the job done and everybody believed in me. Of course, I was disappointed because I didn't want to let the seniors down and let my team down. So when I took that [three-pointer], I was very confident. When it went through the basket, it was a feeling of relief."
The Panthers hit 6 of 8 free throws in the final 94 seconds of overtime but Young's two misses with 32 seconds left kept the door ajar.
Pitt senior Levon Kendall, who fouled out with 3:42 to go in OT, kept his face buried in a towel the rest of the way as his career hung in the balance.
"I said I can't watch," Kendall said. "I went by the crowd reaction to see if that worked and it did."
Pitt fans probably didn't want to have to look at the final 10 minutes of regulation. The 19-point lead was still 11 (63-52) at the five-minute mark.
But VCU kept causing turnovers and roared back with a 17-4 run, tying the game at 67-67 on Walker's three-pointer with 1:41 left that put the building in an uproar.
Jesse Pellot-Rosa's putback with 52.1 seconds left gave the Rams their first lead of the night, 69-67, but Pitt's Young drove for a layup with 47.8 seconds left to quickly tie the game.
"We stopped attacking, took the air out of the ball too soon and it came back to bite us in the butt a little bit," Fields said. "But in overtime, we got the job done."
It wasn't easy because Pellot-Rosa and Walker had 20 points apiece for VCU and each scored 16 in the second half. But the Rams had just 32 points in the game's first 28 minutes as Pitt's aggressive man-to-man caused them fits.
For the night, VCU hit just 29 of 71 overall and only 7 of 23 three-pointers.
"Obviously, there's a level of disappointment for us," said a misty-eyed VCU coach Anthony Grant. "I'm not one that gets into close calls or moral victories. You either win or you lose and we weren't able to win today but, like I told the guys, to me the clock just ran out."
Young led Pittsburgh with 15 points while center Aaron Gray -- working on one hour's sleep after a bout with food poisoning -- played only 26 of the 45 minutes but still scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and posted team highs of eight rebounds and five assists.
"I was the last person before the game who wanted it to go into overtime," Gray said, rolling his eyes.
But Pitt's All-America candidate had no quarrel with the result.