PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) -- It was a performance to be remembered, though not necessarily a performance to be replicated.
When No. 20 Pitt last visited Villanova, it required one of the most flawless last-five-minutes-of-the-game in memory to post a 15-point win. On Sunday, before 12,553 at the Petersen Events Center, the Panthers needed all the Senior Day karma they could get in rallying to take down the Wildcats, 73-64, in overtime, in the final Big East home game in program history.
Is it fair to say Jamie Dixon won't miss having to sweat out such games on a fairly regular basis?
"You wonder how it can get any better than this--playing in the best conference in the country. But I think our hopes and our plans are to make the ACC the best conference in the country," he said. "[The Big East] has built the program. We wouldn't be where we are without the affiliation. That was our selling point 14 years ago, when we got here: you're going to be in the Big East, where you're going to play against the best."
Fair enough. He's earned the right to wax poetic. After all, this was, in several ways, a fitting end.
Approaching halftime, this game, true to Big East form, featured more fouls than field goals, and yet, short of the halftime score, was probably right in the comfort zone of the man who's presided over one-third of Pitt's Big East stay.
The winningest team in the conference since The Pete opened turned the game in its favor soon enough to win for the 180th time in that building, and the 75th and final time in Big East play.
But most appropriately, Tray Woodall, often its go-to guy, found fellow senior Dante Taylor, a much more maligned player lo these four years, for a thunderous, game-clinching dunk in the waning moments of the extra period, possibly propelling Pitt to a once-improbable double-bye in their last Big East Tournament.
That was, perhaps, as loud as the Oakland Zoo has ever been during Taylor's collegiate career.
What resonated most, however, was when the 6'9" forward from Greenburgh, New York stepped off the court and in front of the mic to play the position of gentle giant.
"It was hard for me at first, seeing my mom, because I know she was real proud of me, and I've come a long way," said Taylor, weeping openly while being consoled by teammate and roommate Woodall. "To have a game like this as your last one is great. James stepped in real big, hit two big threes, Talib played...real hard...when you've got teammates like that that can pull it out for you, it speaks a lot."
With his mother on campus to see him play for the first time ever, and a rather timely increase in minutes, Taylor channeled that emotion effectively. In lieu of a hobbled Steven Adams, he chipped in seven points, six boards, and two blocks, including a critical one to effectively extend the game.
Villanova held the ball for the final shot of regulation, and, although referee Karl Hess had already called everything short of breaking wind, Taylor stifled a dribble-drive by sharp-shooting Ryan Arcidiacono without fouling, making sure that final shot never took place.
Woodall, whose own family made a rare appearance, supplied similar energy throughout what had been a lifeless day for Pitt's offense. A 14-point, 11-assist effort, his seventh career double-double and first of his last season, included a fast-break layup that erased the remnants of a nine-point deficit midway through the second half, a setup of a Lamar Patterson layup that kept the Panthers within range, and a subsequent pair of free throws that set the stage for the first of James Robinson's heroic three-pointers.
Symbolic of the unselfish nature of this team, personally and tactically, Robinson, who celebrates a birthday today, shared his gift with the seniors by burying another critical three with 30 seconds left in OT, assisted by...guess who?
"Emotion was working for us," Woodall said. "We felt it was best to just go out and play today. It was hard at first, but once the game got going, it was about us, about our team.
"This shows what kind of team we have, and how close our group is."
With only one more--hopefully perfunctory--Big East regular season game to go at DePaul this Saturday, only one more question remains unanswered prior to next week's Big East Tournament.
Which version of Pitt will follow Dixon to The Garden, and beyond?
Will it be the version that took command of the final 20 minutes of Sunday's contest? Or the one that labored at both ends through the first 25?
Will we see Robinson continue to play above his age, as he did against 'Nova with 14 points on 4-of-6 from the field? Or will the pure freshman, though no stranger to pressure, play like his age, as he did when he laid a load of bricks against USF three days earlier?
Will a (presumably) healthy Steven Adams build on the progress made during the second half of what fans wish not be his lone collegiate season? Or will Pitt's other starting newcomer look as raw and allergic to expectations as he did in the fall?
Will Lamar Patterson, statistically, Pitt's most prolific player in Big East action, avoid prolonged stretches of invisibility? Or will the team's occasionally overzealous spread-the-wealth offense get the best of him?
Will Talib Zanna prove that Sunday's overtime was the catharsis he needed offensively? Or will Zanna, who gutted out 14 points and 19 boards, and was once the team's most reliable scorer, continue to leave more easy points on the table in frustrating fashion?
Will J.J. Moore be assertive and use his physical tools to flex the muscles of Dixon's bench? Or will he succumb to the trigger-happiness that, by his own recent admission, has sometimes been his undoing?
Will Woodall be able to provide more leadership at both ends of the floor? Or will future foes be able to better defend the one player seemingly immune to these night-and-day tendencies?
Will Taylor be an x-factor? Or will he be a non-factor?
In a year that has seen teams coast to coast take turns atop the polls, and a team the Panthers manhandled in historic fashion on the road suddenly atop the conference, the only thing we know about Pitt's immediate future is, we don't know.
As the curtain falls on the Big East schedule and the Panthers exit stage left, a lot has been done right. But there isn't much more self-worth to squeeze out of Pitt's proud history as a member of that conference. It's about getting to the next level...the Final Four, the national championship, all that glory always out of reach. There's absolutely no guarantee of that this season, nor anytime in the foreseeable future in the ACC, but, fair or unfair, that's how Dixon and his teams will be judged going forward.
These Panthers won't be stood up. They've earned a hot date for the big dance, and there's plenty of room on the dance floor.
Let's just hope they don't have two left feet.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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