Friday March 27th, 2009

BOSTON -- An old acquaintance greeted Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson in the bowels of the Garden moments after his school's escape of Xavier here last night, a 60-55 victory that put the Panthers in tomorrow's East Regional final against Villanova.

"Was that ugly or what?"

"It was beautiful," Pederson replied with a well-practiced serenity.

Such is the curious aesthetic with which followers of Pitt basketball have come to terms. All of the Big East teams still alive in these NCAAs share a rugged style, but no team is homely the way Pitt is. We're talking coyote, mirror-cracking, Wicked-Witch-of-the-West, "U-G-L-Y, you-ain't-got-no-alibi" ugliness.

For starters, take the figures cut by the Panthers' two most conspicuous players, center DeJuan Blair and point guard Levance Fields. Blair lugs around so much junk in the trunk that the gold standard of journalistic seriousness, the New York Times, recently devoted a lengthy report to his hindquarters. This is not even to address the imperfections in Blair's game, which involves short-range shots that sometimes seem to be literally tossed over his shoulder. Yet these shots -- and the rebounding and on-the-block position that Blair seizes by deploying his low center of gravity -- have been effective enough to earn co-Big East Player of the Year honors.

As for Fields, a converted second-baseman from Brooklyn who looks like a hybrid of neighbors Mars Blackmon and Al Sharpton, it sometimes seems as if he fumbles his dribble, bricks free throws and launches ill-advised heaves through the first 35 minutes of a game simply to heighten the drama of some moment he'll later seize like a champ. The daggered three he plunged into the Muskies in the final minute last night recalled two shots in the late stages that beat Connecticut in February; and another late jumper that turned back Oklahoma State in the second round.

Winning ugly is so much a part of Pitt's m.o. that, even as Xavier built an eight-point halftime lead, Villanova's assistant coaches kept telling their boss, Jay Wright, that "Pitt's gonna win this."

"It's just who they are," Wright says with a shrug.

Through a parade of coaches dating back three decades, Pitt's basketball teams have embodied the substance-over-style spirit of the Steel City, a place where, as Roy Blount Jr. put it in his classic account of a season with the Steelers About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, "Open any window and you've got a smoke-filled room." Pittsburghers? "We're hardnosed," says Blair. "We fight for what we want."

Villanova isn't just from the opposite, brotherly lovely end of Pennsylvania; it's from the tony Main Line. But, says Wildcats swingman Dwayne Anderson, "We like to be ugly as well. We don't run up and down and alley-oop. We want to dive on the floor, with bodies flying all over the place. We want to be -- I'm not sure if this is the right word -- more uglier."

But the reigning pageant queens will have to be dethroned. "People say we win ugly," says Blair. "But we win. And it's all about winning."

For the team that's easier on the eyes tomorrow, there'll be no award for congeniality.

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