East Tennessee State came to play.
A full court press helped generate 18 turnovers. It disoriented the methodical attack of the No.1 seeded Pitt Panthers and had them throwing more balls into the stands, than to their own teammates.
The Buccaneers hounded the boards gathering 20 offensive rebounds. They out-muscled DaJuan Blair, which was previously unthinkable. The Buccaneers outworked Pitt in every aspect of the game.
East Tennessee Stateheld Jermaine Dixon (0), Levance Fields (6) and Tyrell Biggs (3), three of Pitt’s five starters, to nine combined points.
The Buccaneers were lead by Kevin Tiggs (21) and Courtney Pigram (17) who combined for 38 points.
They were not only going up against one of the favorites to win the tournament, but they were going up against history. No. 1 seeds were 98-0 against No. 16 seeds prior to this game.
With 2:49 left to play they were trailing by only three points, 62-59. Momentum, as well as the crowd, was on their side. Every time Pitt went on a run, ETSU went on a similar run to nullify Pitt’s lead.
In the end, however, it was not enough.
All the momentum, cheers and mistakes by Pitt couldn’t make up for the Buccaneers poor performance from the floor. ETSU went 30.3 percent (23-76) from the field. They shot 46.8 percent from the field on the season. The Bucs went 4-22 from beyond the arc. In comparison, they shot 33.6 percent from three-point land on the season.
The biggest reason ETSU fell short was their futility from the free-throw line. East Tennessee State missed several clutch free throws down the wire, and went 12-24 for the game. The Buccaneers were a 71.5 percent free-throw shooting team on the season.
On a night where they were off, everything seemed to be going right.
Pitt was unable to pull away from the ETSU. The Panthers would get up by a few points, but then the Buccaneers would generate a few turnovers, hit a couple shots and go on a run. Pitt turned the ball over 18 times to ETSU’s 9.
In the end, it was not enough.
Pitt was 24-55 (43.6 percent) from the floor. They hit 7-19 three-pointers (36.8 percent) and this traditionally weak free-throwing shooting team hit 17-23 (73.9 percent) from the line; DaJuan Blair was the only Panther to miss a free throw going 7-13.
Pitt was just too good.
Despite giving up 20 offensive boards, the Panthers out-rebounded the Buccaneers, had more assists and blocked more shots.
In the face of adversity, a suddenly hostile crowd, a lack of momentum and a team that seemed to have fate on their side, the Panthers would not be denied.
The Panthers rode the wide shoulders of Blair, much as they have all season, to a hard fought victory. Sam Young got hot, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to keep the Panthers ahead, and Ashton Gibbs scored five points in the final 75 seconds to seal the deal.
In a situation where many teams would have collapsed, the Panthers persevered.
Blair recorded his 18th double-double of the season with 27 points and 16 rebounds. Sam Young kicked in 14 points, and hauled in 13 rebounds, and Ashton Gibbs was the only other Panther with a double-figure point total; he contributed 10 points.
Coach Jamie Dixon’s teams are known for being tough and physical. They are also known for not making deep tournament runs. In a game where Dixon recorded his 161stwin, tying him with N.C. State’s Everett Case (1947-52) for the best six-year start to a career, it seemed as though Pitt would be destined for another early exit.
The Panthers have won a couple Big East titles since 2002, they have a long succession of 20-win seasons and ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the country this season.
It has been their inability to advance past the round of 16 that has prevented them from being grouped with the elite teams in the country. Many thought this would be the season that the Panthers would finally reach their potential.
For that to happen they are going to need to play a lot better than they did today.
No. 1 seeds are now 99-0 against the No. 16 seeds since the tournament went to the 64-team format in 1985. Louisville will try to make it 100-0 this evening, but chances are their game won’t be as exciting as this.
Pitt nearly beat itself, but despite a valiant effort by the little team that thought they could, it was not enough. We will all remember where we were the day ETSU almost scored the upset.
The key word is almost.