|Pitt wrap up||03.27.09 at 12:52 pm ET|
The Pittsburgh Panthers have been a fascinating case study in flirting with tournament disaster in all three games they’ve won so far.
In round one, they were trailing East Tennessee State in the second half and in danger of becoming the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16 in tourney history. They woke up in time and squeaked out a 72-67 win.
In round two, they were tied with Oklahoma State, 49-49, at halftime and won by eight.
And on Thursday night, they were being manhandled by No. 4 Xavier at halftime 37-29. They were trailing with under a minute to go, 55-53, when Levance Fields fired up a long distance dedication that was answered by string music when his three swished through as the shot clock was winding down. Fields stole the ball moments later and Pittsburgh was onto the Elite Eight for the first time since 1974.
On Saturday evening, Pittsburgh is playing Villanova in the East Regional final for a chance to go to the Final Four for the first time ever.
Here is what the winners had to say following their win over the Muskies on Thursday night:
Pittsburgh – 60
Xavier – 55
COACH DIXON: Obviously can’t say enough about our kids. But first off Xavier’s kids, great team. We knew what they were and they came out and played with tremendous physicality and toughness and aggressiveness. Probably the most physical team we’ve seen this year.
They pushed us around for the first half, but we responded in the second half as we usually do. And we’re very proud of our guys how they responded. It’s the first half we didn’t — didn’t go our way. We had guys make big plays.
As I said earlier, I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots. He’s made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him. And that’s all that matters.
I’m proud of these guys and what they did rebounding-wise against a very good team, especially in the second half. We came, we responded and we did what we wanted to do after halftime.
Q. Levance, can you take us through that last possession. What did you see that allowed you to take that shot in?
LEVANCE FIELDS: We came off — we had a run, DeJuan screened, really didn’t turn the corner. He did a good job defending and getting over and I did a little in and out move which created just enough space, and got them on their heels. And once I got the separation I took the shot and had all the confidence it would go in. And once it went through it was a good thing.
Q. What is it that gives you that confidence to make those kind of plays? Talk about the defensive play, too.
LEVANCE FIELDS: It’s like Coach said, I always get the credit, but it’s special to have — first off, I do have confidence, but especially to have my coach and my teammates to believe in me down the stretch. I’ve got two stars on each side of me right here who could step up in that situation. But it’s a special feeling.
As far as defensive play, it really started with Brown, pressuring Raymond in doing what he didn’t want to do. I think DeJuan did a great job hedging out strong. He got a hand on it. And I happened to be anticipating that and once it popped free, I was off to the races.
Q. Sam and Levance, the two seniors, you’ve been hearing all year about how you have to get to the Sweet 16 to be successful. Can you talk about what it means now?
SAM YOUNG: It definitely means a lot for us as players, the coach and the city. It’s something that everybody has been waiting for for a long time, for us to give them that as a pleasure. But at the same time we feel like we’ve still got work to do.
LEVANCE FIELDS: Like Sam said, it’s been great all year, doing numerous things the school hasn’t done ever. And just stepping up to that chapter for us seniors and this group, ’08-09 team.
But we came in expecting to win two games, expecting to win our first game Thursday, and that’s what we’ve done. It was dramatic fashion.
Q. You got off to a slow start, but in the second half you were all over the boards. What changed for you?
DeJUAN BLAIR: That’s just my teammates and my coach, coaches just believing in me, and not letting me get down on myself in the first half. And they come in the locker room and talking to me, keeping me motivated.
Like I said last week, I have motivators with these two people next to me, they just keep me into the game. And I found my way to score for the team and I started rebounding. I did what I did to win.
So hats off to all the seniors and the coaches and the city for getting past the Sweet 16. And that’s cool.
Q. Levance, I asked you yesterday about the toughness of this team. It’s shown that it can take a punch, but deliver one in the end. How does that galvanize this team going forward?
LEVANCE FIELDS: We’re a confident group. We understand that no game is going to be easy. Fortunately for us, in some ways we still haven’t played our best basketball, but other opponents have been playing excellent. We’re positive in this situation. It hasn’t been a blowout, but we’re making the plays down the stretch when the game is on the line. And we keep advancing and hopefully on Saturday we can play better. But if we have to win again like this, we’ll take it.
Q. Do you guys just feel that in a tight game down the stretch that’s your time to shine? You’ve played three close games in the tournament down the stretch. Do you feel that’s your time to shine?
DeJUAN BLAIR: Yeah, we give Levance the ball and he caught me up there for the screen, and then we just let him play off of that. And of course, Sam came up big at the end of the game. And when us three are clicking, like I said, it’s tough for us to be beat. We did a good job today. We did good.
SAM YOUNG: I felt like with the free throws, they were big, but I probably wouldn’t have even been in that situation if it wasn’t for Levance. So in those situations I like Levance.
DeJUAN BLAIR: Me, too (laughter.)
Q. Levance, with just over two seconds, you sprinted down the court and had a nice little moment with your coach. I’m wondering, did you guys say anything or was it just a hug there?
LEVANCE FIELDS: He was still mad, telling me the game wasn’t over (laughter). I was excited for Coach. As good as he’s been for this University and picking up where Coach Howland left off. The biggest knock has been not a Final Four appearance and not getting past Sweet 16. So this is just a step towards that. And I just wanted to embrace him because he deserves it.
Q. Levance, you’ve done this several times in college and several times in high school. Do you remember the first time you made a basket like this?
LEVANCE FIELDS: No, I don’t. No, I don’t remember. But like I said, I did it numerous times. So once again, I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but in any situation, my coach, whatever team I’ve been on and my teammates have faith in me to make a play, whether it’s me shooting it or looking for a teammate. Tonight was no different. They put the ball in my hands again and I made a play.
Q. Did you guys expect, like Coach said, for those guys to be as tough as they were? How much did that make you guys change how you approached them? What did you expect out of them, I guess?
DeJUAN BLAIR: We knew Xavier was a physical team and they — obviously they hit us with the first punch, but we came back in the second half and we made some defensive plays. We jumped out and we started going back and forth. Levance hit and shot and Coach kept saying whoever wins the rebounds will win the game.
They were winning the first half, obviously they were up. So we clamped down on the rebounding and we — it was even at the end. So we got the win, so we started rebounding.
Q. Coach, Sam, the second time in a row, two games in a row Sam has really been the offense in the first half. You guys struggled and he’s really carried. Can you talk about how he’s picked you up and kept you guys in the game the first half?
COACH DIXON: We were trying to get the ball inside early and we just didn’t finish some plays. Sam made some shots. We scored a number of baskets on our out-of-bounds plays, and that was, I thought, the key.
They’re a very good defensive team. This is the type of game we anticipated. It was going to be really — they’re very physical. They guard well, they’re low field goal percentage defense team. It was the type of game that we expected.
But, again, we run the numbers for them, we count on him to score, and we need to play off of him to get other stuff. He made big plays and big shots early. But he was there in the second half, as well. So our balance — balanced team and balanced scoring. We have roles and our guys understand them.
Q. Coach, first half did not end the way that you wanted it to, I would imagine. What was the mood in the locker room at halftime and do you bring up that your team has been to this point and has not advanced to the Elite 8 or is that something you don’t bring up to this team?
COACH DIXON: Again, these are guys that — they have nothing to do with it eight years ago or seven years ago. So that’s not a factor. Really, we were a tie game and I think they outscored us like 8 down the stretch. And it was just — but the game, the tempo of the game, the tone of the game, really, was the rebounding.
We were down early from the get-go on the glass, and we said from the beginning, whoever won the rebounding battle was going to win the game. We put ourselves in the hole, we were down 7 on the glass and they were up 8 at the halftime. And so it corresponded. In the second half we got a change and out- rebounded them by seven and that’s a big number. Really, that’s what we discussed at halftime, made it very clear that was what we had to do and they did it, they responded. It’s easier said than done. But we did get it done.
Q. Was this your team’s best game of the tournament in your estimation so far or do they still have another left in them?
COACH DIXON: I thought our defense was good. I thought our defense was good. I think we’ve been defending pretty well. I think our offense could be better in this game. They had a lot to do with it. They’re a team that’s a physical game. There wasn’t a lot of fouls called. It was called evenly and balanced. We had two teams that are very good. They’re big, they’re strong, they play a lot of guys and they’re very experienced.
They had something to do with it. We’ve got to execute a little bit better. But again, you get down to this time, it’s — there’s not going to be a lot of easy baskets. And that’s just part of playing against good people and that’s why they’re all here at this point.
Q. Coach, you mentioned how the players weren’t part of the history of the past seven or eight years of the tournament. What does it mean to hear them talk about how much they want to do this not just for the fans and the city and the school but for you, as well?
COACH DIXON: I don’t know how much they’ve really put into that. I’ve always looked at it, if it was easy to get to the Sweet 16 more teams would do what we’ve done. Only two teams have got there as much as we have. So it’s an accomplishment. But again, somehow we’ve turned the Sweet 16 into a bad thing or a bad — and it’s not. It’s a good thing.
It will be — you’ve got to keep — no one is satisfied. If that was their motivation, that’s great. But these kids have played too hard, they’ve done so many things right all year long. They’ve challenged each other, they’ve been unselfish, they’ve sacrificed for one another. I’m just happy for our seniors because when they came in, I said this was the best group, Tyrell, Levance and Sam, that we’ve brought in. They’ve lived up to it. They’ve got the most wins in school history as a group. A huge number, I can’t keep track now, and they’ve won a lot of games.
Q. Can you talk specifically about some of the adjustments defensively you made at halftime. It was night and day for Xavier offensively first half to second.
COACH DIXON: Really, it was the glass. They were scoring on second shots and they got a lot of kickouts after getting rebounds, second shots. So that was the biggest thing.
I thought our defense was actually pretty sound in the first half. I mean, they made some tough shots, which they do. They drive you and they lean in and they look to get to the rim. And those were contested.
But if you keep giving them opportunities, they’re going to get open shots. They shot 40 percent, 24 in the second half. I think we guarded the three a little better in the second half. I thought that was key. And in transition. I thought they hurt us in transition early. Not so much, again, the scoring maybe on transition, but getting a shot and then getting a rebounding opportunity. So I thought our transition defense was probably the biggest improvement in the second half.
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