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Trags Take… Villanova-Pittsburgh 03.27.09 at 5:24 pm ET
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East Regional Final No. 3 Villanova (29-7) vs. No. 1 Pittsburgh (31-4), Saturday, 7:05 p.m. TD Banknorth Garden

The Big East has been praised up and down as the best college basketball conference in the land. On Saturday night in Boston, that will be in full display as two of the best teams from the conference square off for the chance to go to the Final Four the following weekend in the Motor City.

Here are five things from each team to look for that will go a long way in determining who will be cutting the Garden nets and getting their motors revved for Detroit.

Pittsburgh:

1. Can Pittsburgh survive another inconsistent performance out of the gate? Most likely the answer to this question is no.

2. Can Pittsburgh avoid the foul trouble that plagued DeJuan Blair in the only other meeting between the two Pennsylvania cross-state rivals on Jan. 28 at the Spectrum?

3. Will Levance Fields start making an impact earlier than the last 60 seconds of the game?

4. Can Sam Young score on Villanova’s defense?

5. Will Pittsburgh find a way to control the offensive glass with their bigger front court?

Villanova:

1. Will Dante Cunningham continue to emerge as the most active player on Villanova’s roster?

2. Will Villanova be able to do what Xavier did on Thursday night and dribble penetrate in the lane and dish off to wide open scorers?

3. Will Scottie Reynolds finally be the Scottie Reynolds who can score at will?

4. Can Villanova find their long-range touch?

5. Will Villanova dominate the second half as they have in their first three tournament wins?

What they said:

Villanova coach Jay Wright: “We’ve got three seniors and Scottie (Reynolds) who’s played so many games, he’s like a senior, have been very, very successful with this year is just put the last game behind them, whether it was a good game or bad game, move on to the next game and keeping their focus on that.  So I think that’s going to be important. The higher the stakes get the more there’s distractions around you. And we’re really counting on these upperclassmen to make sure we concentrate on Pitt, who is I know I sound like a broken record, but when you get to this point in the season you’re playing great teams. We know them. These seniors have played against their seniors so many times.

“It’s going to be a great game. We know each other very well and we’ve had a lot of great battles. We have great respect for them, as I said last night. We’d love to win this game, but at least I hope we do win, but at least if we don’t, there’s a Big East team going to the Final Four. We’ll be proud of them and happy for them, but I hope it’s us.”

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon: “As soon as the game was over it was about who we’re going to be playing and getting our guys back to the hotel and getting them rested and preparation for the next one. I think it’s an interesting thing. I know there’s about 330 programs that would like to ask that question and call the Sweet 16 like a bad thing. It’s been an accomplishment. It’s something that we as a program I never considered as a possibility, and we were getting there on more often than everybody but two schools in the country. So I think Kansas and Duke are one up on us.  So we’ve had a very good run, very good success. But at the same time we know that a National Championship is something that we have as a goal.”

Trags Take: Villanova coach Jay Wright says that the Final Four isn’t a specific goal for his team. Jamie Dixon of Pitt says it is. Wright says he just wants his team playing their best basketball. And they are. They are outscoring their opponents by a total of 50 points in the second halves of their three NCAA games so far. Games are won in the the second half, just ask Pittsburgh who had to get a prayer answered when Levance Fields drained a long, long three-pointer in the final minute to carry the Panthers to victory. Villanova has the guard play and depth that Xavier didn’t. Villanova will be revving their motors following this one and off to the Final Four for the first time since their magical 1985 title season.

Villanova 75, Pittsburgh 63

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Never let them see you sweat 03.27.09 at 4:54 pm ET
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So, you thought all stories about gross, sweaty basketball arenas were reserved for a certain former basketball venue on Causeway Street in the mid-80s when the Los Angeles Lakers came to town for the NBA Finals? Think again.

The old Philadelphia Spectrum, now the Wachovia Spectrum, will be raised this spring but before that they had some significant ‘lasts’ in that old facility on Pattison and Broad in South Philly.

One of which occurred on Jan. 28 when Pittsburgh visited Villanova for the last college game ever to be played in the legendary building. The Spectrum, which also hosted the 1976 and 1981 NCAA Final Four won by Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was transformed into a sweatbox that night as the heat was cranked up, making the building feel like a sauna, circa the 1984-85 NBA Finals in Boston.

Villanova coach Jay Wright prides himself on his well-dressed manner on the sideline. On this night, that was a challenge as big as containing Pitt’s DeJuan Blair.

“I know they didn’t know anything about the Spectrum,” Wright said on Friday of his players’ appreciation of the Spectrum. “But in that second half when that place got going and it was so hot in there. I pride myself I don’t sweat too much. I was just sweating like crazy. And my friends were busting my chops bout going to my hanky all the time. I don’t ever remember being in a game like that. It was so hot and so loud.”

But as was the case in the 80s with Bird, Parish and McHale and Ainge and D.J., the home team had a little something to do with Villanova knocking off then-No. 3 Pittsburgh, 67-57.

“The second thing was, Shane Clark in the second half coming up with all those big offensive rebounds. Reggie Redding, big shots,” Wright added. “Corey Fisher, big shots. They really hadn’t done that before in Big East games. And that’s what kind of got us going is they knew Pitt were they No. 1 or No. 2, 3? But they knew they were a great team. And now they do it against a great team and they got confidence and we got confidence in them. That’s what I think really happened.

“I swear, that building had a lot to do with it. I really do think it does. Just the crowd, I mean,” Wright said.

Now, on Saturday night, he’s hoping the Nova fans in the Garden turn up the heat again on the Panthers.

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Get creative 03.27.09 at 4:37 pm ET
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Props to Mike Vega, our distinguished colleague at the Boston Globe for the following question on the off-day before Saturday’s East Regional final between Villanova and Pittsburgh.

With Villanova coach Jay Wright on the dais, joined by five players, Vega asked the following:

This is for each one of you guys, and I’d like you to take the time to maybe think and just give me your quick response to who on the Pitt team, who on Pitt’s team best defines the term straight baller? Who on that team best defines that, each one of you?

DWAYNE ANDERSON: I’m not sure if you can choose one player, that’s why they’re in the position they are.

Q. Choose one. (Vega countered)

DWAYNE ANDERSON: Levance Fields.

SHANE CLARK: I’m going to have to go with Sam Young.

DANTE CUNNINGHAM: (DeJuan) Blair.

REGGIE REDDING: (Jermaine) Dixon.

SCOTTIE REYNOLDS: Whoever is left. It’s (Tyrelle) Biggs, yeah. (Laughter.)

Q. Among the starting lineup, who is the guy that stands above the rest?

DWAYNE ANDERSON: I think probably Levance Fields, as you saw last night. At the end of the game he wants the ball in his hands. And he didn’t score that much in the beginning of the game, but he made other plays on the defensive end. That just shows how great of a player he is. He took that shot when they were only down two. Levance Fields, he’s their motivation, he keeps them going.

Vega also posed the same to Pittsburgh players and here were their answers:

TYRELL BIGGS: Corey Fisher.

JERMAINE DIXON: I would definitely have to say Corey Fisher, too.

DeJUAN BLAIR: I’d say Scottie (Reynolds). He’s the general for their team.

LEVANCE FIELDS: Fisher.

SAM YOUNG: I’ll say Dante (Cunningham), because he plays tough and he’s aggressive. He always does whatever it takes to win.

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Pitt wrap up 03.27.09 at 12:52 pm ET
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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Nova wrap up 03.27.09 at 12:34 pm ET
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Before looking ahead to a Big East coronation in the East Regional final between No. 1 Pittsburgh and No. 3 Villanova, let’s take one more look back on Thursday night.

Some quick notes about Villanova-Duke:

Villanova is back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2006 and for the fourth time since 1985, also the last year they won it all. Nova beat North Carolina in their title run in ’85, lost to Oklahoma in ’88 and lost to eventual national champ Florida three years ago.

Villanova is playing a fellow Big East school in the NCAA tournament for the first since beating Georgetown, 66-64, in the ’85 title game.

Duke’s tandem of Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson made just 4-of-32 shots from the floor.

Duke made just 16-of-60 shots on the night, a 26.7 percentage.

Villanova – 77
Duke – 54

Here were the comments from Villanova coach Jay Wright and selected players postgame:

COACH WRIGHT: Well, a great game for us. We are — we’re getting better this late in the year, which is really exciting. It’s fun to coach this group. We have so much respect for Duke, the program, those players. We know all those guys. We really respect how they compete and they’re a great program. It was a great win against them.
What’s really exciting for our staff is that these guys just keep improving. We actually had two or three practices before this where we can see guys improving and our team improving, and that’s exciting.

Q. This is for any one of the guys. This is a neutral site game, but it seemed like your fans came up in force. Did it feel like a home game at times for you guys?
DANTE CUNNINGHAM: You know, we like to call it Nova Nation, it’s everywhere. It was great to hear everyone behind us yelling and screaming.
REGGIE REDDING: I think it was a real advantage for us and they came out to Boston and just showed us what kind of university Villanova is.
SCOTTIE REYNOLDS: Yeah, they did a great job, even though we were down, staying in the game, and we appreciate their support.

Q. For any of the players, first half, 26 points, kind of a half-court game. The second half you opened it up a little bit. What changed for you guys?
DANTE CUNNINGHAM: We honestly just kept the same intensity, brought it up a little bit more in the second half. Honestly, just the same thing we came into the game with. We just tightened it up a little bit more and just continued to get stops on the defensive end.
REGGIE REDDING: I think in the second half we got the ball moving a little bit more. Every guy on the floor was trying to make plays. And the first half it was just like we were passing, passing, not doing anything, really. In the second half we tried to make plays. Read the rest of this entry »

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Closing in 03.27.09 at 12:12 am ET
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Villanova is closing in on its second Elite Eight appearance in fourth years. They lost to eventual national champion Florida in 2006. Villanova would play fellow Big East rival Pittsburgh on Saturday for a chance to go to Detroit and the Final Four.

Villanova hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1985 when they won it all. Pittsburgh has never made the trip.

By the way, Gerald Henderson drilled his first field goal, a three with 5:20 remaining to bring Duke to within 64-49 but Villanova maintained control and answered when Dante Cunningham hit a layup.

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Ice cold 03.26.09 at 11:38 pm ET
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It’s no secret that Duke is a significantly better team when they hit their threes.

Duke started out 2-for-13 from beyond the arc before Greg Paulus came off the bench to drill his first three point attempt. It was Paulus’ first action of the game and the three came with over 15 minutes remaining in the second half.

On the Gerald Henderson watch, he is now 0-for-7 from the floor, with just two first half free throws to show for his efforts. He picked up his fourth personal fould with 13:53 remaining in the second half and went immediately to the bench.

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