After 35 years of waiting—the Pittsburgh Panthers are returning to the Elite Eight!
This will be Pitt’s first trip to the Elite Eight since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, yet this team knows there is still a lot of work yet to be done.
But all that doesn’t matter.
On this day, in this city, for this University, no victory was bigger for a program than Pitt’s ugly, but hard fought, 60-55 triumph over the Xavier Musketeers.
In what will certainly be remembered as the ugliest game of the tournament, Pitt outlasted Xavier on a night where both teams shot under 34 percent from the field; the two teams went a combined 43-129 from the field, 9-38 from beyond the three-point line.
Pitt’s first win over a team seeded higher than fifth may be the biggest in school history.
Pitt has been one of the most successful programs in the country since 2001.
Under Ben Howland, and now Jaime Dixon, Pitt has amassed 219 wins in those eight seasons. That’s an average of just under 28 wins per season.
Pitt has been to seven Big East Championship games in nine seasons, and became the first Big East team in conference history to reach seven championship games in eight seasons.
Jaime Dixon has become the winningest coach in NCAA history for a coach in their first six seasons.
“The Joker," as he is sometimes referred to in Pittsburgh, has built a strong program that utilizes tough defense, and patient offense.
Dixon has now taken the Pitt program to new and uncharted waters.
But there was always something missing.
Something has consistently separated the top programs in the country from Pitt.
UConn, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State and UCLA are among the elite programs in the country.
When you talk about college basketball greatness, you think of those programs.
These schools have won National Titles, they have been to the Final Four and they constantly bring in top recruits.
They have been there…that’s why.
Now it is time for Pitt to take it’s place among the Nation’s best. They are on the cusp of joining this elite tier of collegiate programs.
They are one win away from the Final Four, and perhaps, solidifying their status as one of the nation’s elite programs.
This has been a great season for Pitt basketball as they continue to build on their elite aura. After ascending to the No.1 ranking in the polls, Pitt broke their Sweet 16 jinx by upending Xavier last night.
As he has done throughout his whole career, Levance Fields made the big shots in the closing seconds to lift Pitt to another victory.
He did it against Duke last year, he did it against UConn and Oklahoma State this year, and he did it against Xavier last night.
"Like I've said before, I never get tired of seeing Levance take big shots. He's made them year after year,” coach Jaime Dixon said.
Fields had 14 points and six assists for the Panthers on Thursday night, but no three points were bigger than the jumper he hit with just under a minute remaining to put the Panthers ahead.
Then again, with his steal of B.J. Ryan, and coast-to-coast lay-up to seal the deal 20 seconds later, was pretty big too.
"I thought the shot Levance Fields hit is all about [the poise of] senior point guards," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, who also played for Pitt from 1987-1992.
That poise rubs off onto his fellow teammates.
DeJuan Blair had the quietest double-double you will never hear about, with 10 points and 17 rebounds. He started slow in the first half again, but came alive when the Panthers needed him most.
Blair also had three steals in the game, tops for either team.
Sam Young led all scorers with 19 points, and summed up the magnitude of Pitt’s victory after the game, "It definitely was big for the players, the coaches and the city. It's something we've been waiting for, for a long time."
This triumvirate may be the best to ever come through Pitt, and they are now one win away from the biggest moment in Pitt basketball.
“The Cardiac Kids”, as local sportswriters have come to call them, should have their late-game strategy down by now.
"Give Levance the ball," Big East co-player of the year DeJuan Blair said with a laugh.
Fields scored a lay-up, and quickly followed it with a three, to put Pitt up for good in the waning moments against Oklahoma State. His big three, and lay-up, against Xavier was the deciding factor in the closing minute.
Fields has been the go-to guy in the clutch for the Panthers, and their next matchup against Villanova will most certainly come down to the wire.
This tournament has been filled with poetic justice, something I have mentioned before in my tournament analysis.
The Pitt—Villanova matchup is just another example, as Villanova is one of the four teams to beat Pitt this year.
Pitt will have a chance at revenge tomorrow night.
For those that watched Villanova stifle the Duke attack last night, Pitt’s performance was equally, if not better, than the Wildcats.
Pitt held Xavier to 18 points in the second half, on 24 percent shooting. The Musketeers were 1-11 from three-point land in the second half, but did finish strong from the free-throw line at 8-10.
No Musketeer recorded a double-digit rebounding total, and only two players recorded more than 10 points.
B.J. Raymond (15) and Derrick Brown (14) accounted for 29 of Xavier’s 55 points, or 53 percent.
"It's just sad that we had to go out the way we went out," Brown said. "The season we had, it was about toughness and finishing what we do. And we didn't finish."
Pitt, however, did finish.
"We're a confident group," Fields said. "We haven't played our best basketball, but the good thing is we've found a way to make plays when we've needed them."
Pitt will need to play nothing short of it’s best basketball against Villanova.
One thing is for sure, Pitt’s time is now.