DAYTON, OHIO -- Two halves, two entirely opposite performances for the Pittsburgh Panthers. And if they'd been played in reverse order -- coming out strong early and petering off late -- it would likely be Oklahoma State moving on to the second round. But it was the Cowboys who came out hot, burning the nets with a barrage of threes (10 of 16) through the first 20 minutes. And it was Sam Young, Pitt's versatile senior forward, doing everything in his power to keep his team within arm's length. Having staved off the assault, Pitt finally got all of its hands on deck for the second half and broke a 49-all halftime tie with a 35-27 run to finish it out. "I didn't have my A game in the first half," Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair said afterward. "Thank God for Sam."
"There's going to be times when [opponents] make shots," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said of surviving the early three-point assault and not abandoning his game plan. "The tendency for others might be to change everything, go back to the drawing board, do something different. But we know we're good and we know what we're doing. If you continue to do it, you grind them out."
1. Size does, in fact, matter. Just ask OSU forward Marshall Moses, who came out strong against Blair for 20 minutes despite giving up at least an inch and, more importantly, 30-plus pounds. He even flattened the Pitt center in the first five minutes with an elbow to the chest that escaped the referees' vision. But Blair gained steam and overwhelmed the smaller Moses with nine rebounds and nine points in the second half.
On Friday it was Moses who had told SI, "I think size is perhaps given too much credit versus playing with heart and playing with ability." Of course, he tacked on a qualifier: "I think size is overrated -- unless you're playing DeJuan Blair."
2. Levance Fields has regained his pre-Big East tournament groove. Since injuring himself on Mar. 7 against Connecticut, the senior point has scored just six points in each of two games. But on Sunday, he went for 13 (three more than his season average) and added nine assists.
More importantly, he says he's back to 100 percent health. He even indulged reporters after the game by running down a checklist of potential injuries that might be -- but aren't -- bothering him. The finger he jammed seconds before the first half ended against OSU? "Aw, that's nothing," he said. Proof of that: he came back on the following possession to drain a three-pointer with three seconds left. He also went unaffected by a mid-court collision with Moses. (More on that later.) "And the other injury," he joked afterward, meaning the groin tweak that's been nagging him. "Nope. Not affecting me."
3. The Travis Ford-led Cowboys will be a force in the Big 12 next year. OSU hit its stride late in the year, winning nine of its last 11 games before Pitt -- a stretch that included strong victories against Oklahoma and Missouri. And they proved on Sunday that, on a good day, they can keep up with just about anyone. Through the first half, the guard trio of Byron Eaton, Terrel Harris and Obi Muenelo was nine of 11 from three-point distance, and only a cold streak later on kept them from pulling off the upset.
In the coming year they'll have to replace Terrel, as well as Eaton at the point. But they already have one capable fill-in in mind in Keiton Page, who shot 41 percent from long distance in '08-09. Ford's other three starters return, as does the versatile Moses.
Sam Young, easily. On an afternoon when Blair's contributions were limited to just one point and three rebounds in the first half, the senior forward was about the only thing Pitt had to counter OSU's first-half, three-point barrage. "That's the thing about this team," Pitt's Tryrell Biggs said afterward. "We just have so many weapons. The other day it was DeJuan [Blair]. Today it was Sam."
With the Cowboys focusing most of their attention on Blair -- and with the best thing OSU could throw at him being the 6-foot-6 Moses -- Young was free to work against smaller bodies. Often it was Moses chasing Blair, but 6-5 guard Terrel Harris often left Young to help out. That left Young almost completely unobstructed in the paint, allowing him to rack up 32 points, mostly on midrange jumpers and in the paint.
A perfect example came six minutes into the second half. With Moses out on the wing defending Blair on a jump shot, Young gobbled up a miss amidst a closing crowd of undersized Cowboy defenders and powered home a lay-up through a swarm of arms. With the basket and subsequent free throw, Pitt pulled ahead by five for its biggest lead to that moment.
From courtside, Fields' second half collision with Moses looked a little fishy, particularly when Young leaned to the downed point guard's level, whispered something, and came away smiling.
Afterward, Fields revealed how the exchange had gone. "[Sam] said, 'You're playing it up, right?' 'Yeah,' I said. I was playing it up." He added, "Someone probably should have warned me about that [pick]. Thank goodness I'm not the smallest guy in the league."
For Pitt it's Xavier, which beat up on Wisconsin, another team with big bodies, 60-49, on Sunday. That match-up should make headlines alone for the fact that the Musketeers are coached by former Pitt star Sean Miller, who took the Panthers to NCAA tournament thrice as a player in the 1980s and '90s and who later assisted on the team's coaching staff for two years.
X's and O's-wise, all the talk will be about Xavier's lack of a true point guard, which could cause some problems against the Panthers, who are happy to slow things down to a half court pace.
In the hallway outside of his team's locker room, though, Blair was thinking of the even bigger picture. As the Louisville team literally woofed and growled through a team huddle, Blair smiled. "I hope we get them down the line. I really do."