As I sit here watching game 3 of the Stanley Cup, enjoying the Penguins up 2 games and basking in the afterglow of an incredible Game 7 win against Ottawa, something doesn’t feel quite right. Yes, it’s fun watching the Pens in the Cup, and game 7 against Ottawa was an amazing game. The Senators played incredible and pushed the Penguins to the limit. The game was highly entertaining, which I suppose is the point. I was entertained.
Growing up in Pittsburgh during the seventies, it was hard not to be a die-hard sports fan. The city practically came to a standstill on Sundays in the fall. There were the team nicknames like ‘The Steel Curtain’. Songs that defined teams like ‘We Are Family’. Individual plays that live on in time like the ‘The Immaculate Reception’. There were the sports personalities that were practically heroes like “Mean” Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, Jack Lambert, Willie Stargell, Franco Harris, Kent Tekulve, John Candelaria, Rocky Blier, Jack Hamm, and more. Everywhere you looked and went there were sports references. It was impossible to escape.
Well, another year of Pitt basketball, and another one-and-done tournament exit. It’s becoming a disturbing trend. Pitt has not made an appearance in the second half of the NCAA tournament since 2009 when they lost to Villanova in the Elite 8. Here’s a look back on this past season, and some thoughts on what lies ahead.
And with Tuesday’s night loss to George Washington, Pitt’s 2014-2015 basketball season mercifully came to a close. It was their fifth straight loss to close out the season, which I’m sure isn’t sitting well with coaches or players.
While the Panthers won more than they lost, their 19-13 regular season record combined with an 8-10 conference record wasn’t enough to get them to the NCAA’s. Pitt promptly pulled one-and-done’s in the ACC Tournament and NIT, in both cases playing listless and uninspired.
Unsurprisingly, Pitt bowed out of the NCAA tournament with a 61-45 loss to Florida today. Unlike prior March disappointments, Pitt represented itself well this time around. They made it to the semifinal of the ACC tournament where they lost to eventual champion Virginia, and they won their opening round NCAA tournament game in dominating fashion by beating Colorado by 29.
Unlike prior seasons, expectations were not high for this year’s team. There was a lot of roster turnover in last year’s offseason, so one could consider making it to the NCAA a success for this team. However, had things gone a little differently, Pitt could have had a special season. So I’ve labeled this season “what could have been.”
It’s hard, really hard, being a Pitt basketball fan.
I’ve been following them for over thirty years, starting sometime back in 1981. ESPN was just starting to get into covering college basketball at the time, and I needed a team to follow. Given I lived in Pittsburgh and was a die-hard Pitt football fan (the seventies and early eighties were Pitt football’s glory days), it wasn’t hard to pick Pitt as my basketball team. Little did I know the crushing disappointments I was signing myself up for.
Believe it or not, recent times (since 2000) are the glory days for Pitt basketball, at least during my tenure as a fan. Pitt has been to the NCAA tournament in 11 of the past 12 years. They’ve made to four Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and have been one-and-done only twice, which includes this years whooping by Witchita State. They’ve been to the Big East tournament championship game 6 times, all from 2001-2007, and brought home two titles. They’ve also won 4 Big East regular season titles.
In the twenty years prior to 2000, Pitt had been to the NCAA tournament 8 times, never advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. They didn’t appear in any Big East championship games, and only won 2 Big East regular season titles. In fact, the years between 1990 and 2000 were particularly bleak, with only 3 post-season appearances – 2 NCAAs and 1 NIT.
So what’s the problem you ask? It’s the way in which Pitt’s season seems to end every year that has resulted in such crushing disappointments. In fact, it’s not hard to do a search and pull up video of most of Pitt’s March losses since they were all particularly painful in their own way.
As part of cleansing, and hope that this might change the luck for next year, here’s my compilation of the top 10 most crushing NCAA and Big East tournament losses Pitt has suffered in my 30 years as a fan.
#10 – 2006 Big East Championship, Pitt vs Syracuse
Pittsburgh had completed a somewhat pedestrian season by recent standards and entered the tournament as the #6 seed. They proceeded to defeat Louisville, rival West Virginia, and Villanova on their way to the title game where they ran into Syracuse, who had also played three games in three days and may have needed to win the tournament to assure themselves of an NCAA bid.
On paper, Pitt had the superior team, but Syracuse had Gerry McNamara. Gerry McNamara had been on fire the first three days of the tournament coming up with clutch play after clutch play, and this fourth night was no exception. After Pitt had battled back to take the lead in the second half, McNamara hit a three with just over 8 minutes left that propelled Syracuse to victory 65-61. His performance was so legendary that is among the top 5 moments of Big East tournament history recognized by the conference.
#9 – 2004 Big East Championship, Pitt vs Connecticut
In what was becoming an annual tradition, Pitt and Connecticut squared off in their third straight Big East Tournament final, with each having won one. Both teams had stellar regular seasons, with Pitt winning the regular season championship and entering as the #1 seed and Connecticut entering as the #2 seed. In other words, this was the rubber match and had all the makings of an instant classic.
With eight minutes left in the second half, Pitt opened up an eleven point lead and had Connecticut on the ropes. That’s when UConn’s Ben Gordon took over. He scored eleven points as part of a 21-7 run to end the game and win 61-58. He scored 81 points over Connecticut’s three games, which was a tournament record at the time.
#8 – 2006 NCAA Tournament, Pitt vs Bradley
After losing in the Big East Championship versus Syracuse, Pitt entered the NCAA tournament as the #5 seed. Expecting they were going to face a tough Kansas team seeded #4 in the region, Pitt received a huge break when Bradley stunned the Jayhawks in the first round.
Unfortunately, Pitt was unable to capitalize. Pitt center Aaron Gray was dominated by Bradley’s sophomore center Patrick O’Bryant who leveraged the performance to leave early for the NBA. Bradley made a quick exit in the third round at the hands of UCLA, and Patrick O’Bryant wasn’t heard from again as he bounced between various NBA teams before heading to Europe. Meanwhile, Aaron Gray continues to play in the NBA, most recently with the Toronto Raptors.
#7 – 2011 Big East quarterfinals, Pitt vs Connecticut
Pitt finished a stellar season and was destined for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Pitt hadn’t enjoyed much recent success in the Big East tournament, but it felt like this was the year they would make a run.
Unfortunately, Connecticut had Kemba Walker, and he had other ideas. In what is one of the most famous clips in Big East basketball history, Kemba Walker scored the game winner at the buzzer. I’ll let the video speak for itself. Connecticut rode his hot hand to a Big East title and subsequent NCAA championship.
#6 – 2002 NCAA Tournament, Pitt vs Kent State
In Pitt’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993, they received a favorable draw by being placed in Pittsburgh as a #3 seed where they proceeded to win both games and advance to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1974. To add to their good fortune, #10 seed Kent State defeated #2 seed Alabama leaving Pitt to play a team from the MAC for a bid in the Elite Eight. To top it off, Indiana upset the region’s top seed Duke in the first game that night, giving Pitt an even better chance to reach their first Final Four.
Behind 22 points from future NFL star Antonio Gates and the clutch play of Trevor Huffman, Pitt lost a hard fought game in overtime, 78-73. Kent State’s cinderella run ended in the next round at the hands of Indiana, 81-69, sending Indiana to their first Final Four in 10 years.
#5 – 2003 NCAA Tournament, Pitt vs Marquette
Pitt followed up 2002’s NCAA tournament with another strong season, a Big East tournament championship, and high expectations as it entered the NCAA tournament as the #2 seed in the Midwest region.They mowed through their first two opponents, beating them by more than 20 points each, before facing #3 seed Marquette in the third round.
In what’s becoming a theme, Pitt ran into a Marquette team who had a talented junior guard by the name of Dwayne Wade, which you may know better as D-Wade these days. He lit up the Panthers for 22 points and made numerous key plays in leading Marquette to a 77-74 victory and subsequent Final Four run.
#4 – 2002 Big East championship, Pitt vs Connecticut
Pitt was making its second straight appearance in the Big East championship game, except this year it had a good chance at winning it. Pitt and Connecticut were the respective winners of the East and West divisions of the Big East and proceeded to the title game as expected.
In what would become an instant classic, the game took two overtimes to decide a winner, and it wasn’t Pitt. In a very unfortunate turn of events, Pitt’s primary playmaker Brandin Knight went down with a knee injury near the end of regulation after slipping on the court. He returned at the end of the first overtime to try a desperation three to win the game that just clanked off the rim. As luck would have it, Connecticut got their chance at a desperation three near the end of the second regulation, and I’ll just let the video cover the rest.
#3 – 2011 NCAA tournament, Pitt vs Butler
Most people thought Pitt would suffer a couple of down years after the loss of Levance Fields, Sam Young and Dejuan Blair from the 2009 team. However, in two short years, Jamie Dixon had the team back as a number one seed in the tournament, despite their early exit in the Big East tournament at the hands of Kemba Walker.
In what is one of the most bizarre finishes to an NCAA tournament game, Pitt blew numerous chances to put the game away at the end, and let Butler score with 3 seconds left to take the lead. The events that transpired next are impossible to describe, and I still can’t bring myself to watch it, at least not yet. You have to watch the video to see just how bizarre the ending is. Even more disturbing is that Butler went on to the championship game that year, barely losing to Duke. What could have been….
#2 – 2009 NCAA tournament, Pitt vs Villanova
The 2009 Pitt team should be considered one of the most talented in Pitt’s history. Levance Fields at point guard, Sam Young at forward, and Dejuan Blair at center. Even though the team did not experience success in the BIg East tournament, the goal of this team wasn’t a Big East championship, it was to make a deep run in the NCAAs.
In 2009, Pitt did not disappoint. Pitt advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and after a thrilling finish, made it past Xavier to its first Elite Eight since 1974, where they met Big rival Villanova. The game was closely contested throughout, and Pitt appeared to have the upper hand when they were up 67-63 with just over 3 minutes left and possession of the ball. From there, things unraveled. Although Levance Fields made two pressure free throws to tie things up with 5 seconds left, his effort, as well Sam Young’s 28 points and Dejuan Blair’s 20 points, were wasted when Scottie Reynolds drove the length of the court to sink the game winner as time expired.
#1 – 1988 NCAA tournament, Pitt vs Vanderbilt
Another one of Pitt’s most talented teams has to be the 1988 installment. At center was senior Charles Smith, junior power forward Jerome Lane (of “send it in Jerome” fame), senior small forward Demetrius Gore, shooting guard Jason Matthews, and freshman point guard Sean Miller. Pitt was loaded with bench talent as well and had all the makings of a run to the NCAA championship. The team won Pitt’s first Big East regular season championship in dramatic fashion over Syracuse in the season finale at the Carrier Dome (a game I was at, sitting on my hands in the middle of the Syracuse student section) but was upset by Villanova in the Big East tournament semifinals.
After dispatching of their first round opponent, Pitt was up against Vanderbilt and Will Perdue, a 7 foot center who could go toe-to-toe with Pitt phenom Charles Smith. Fortunately, Pitt held their own, and appeared on their way to victory when Jason Matthews sank two free throws to give Pitt at 67-63 lead with under 12 seconds left. Until Barry Goheen made not just one, but two three pointers to send the game to overtime, where Pitt would lose, despite the fact that Will Perdue fouled out at the end of regulation. The video below says it all.
To this day, the Vanderbilt defeat still haunts Pitt fans and the team that was a part of the game. Unfortunately, in the 25 years since that defeat, Pitt has not been able to erase its memory with success in the NCAA tournament. But you know what, come next fall, I’ll still be ready and looking forward to another year of Pitt hoops. With any luck, one of these years, Pitt will get to have that breakthrough, the improbable run that teams like 1987 Providence, 1986 Villanova, 1983 NC State, 2010 & 2011 Butler, 2011 VCU and others have made in the tournament. And when that happens, it will erase all of the demons and bad memories of the last 30 years. That run can’t happen soon enough.