Levance Fields, his blood as cold as a December night, had buried opponents like this before.
Just never so late in the month of March.
The senior dug in his spade with 50.9 seconds left, draining a clutch three-pointer from the top of the arc that would permanently put Pitt ahead, 55-54. On the very next play -- his pick-pocketing of Xavier's B.J. Raymond, leading to a Fields lay-up with 23.9 remaining -- the point guard added a sprinkle of dirt for good measure.
"I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots," Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. "He's made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him. And that's all that matters."
After falling short in seven straight NCAA tournament appearances, top-seeded Pitt now goes to its first Elite Eight since 1974 (when it was blown out by eventual champion North Carolina State and David Thompson, 100-72).
"It's something that everybody has been waiting for, for a long time," said forward Sam Young, who performed a somersault in front of the Panthers bench after the final buzzer. "For us to give [the city of Pittsburgh] that is a pleasure. But at the same time we feel like we've still got work to do."
Young is absolutely right about that last part: a Thursday night win [Recap | Box Score] amid the grind of the NCAA tournament will mean precious little two days later. But even if it hasn't looked easy for top-seeded Pitt, this team keeps finding a way to get its work done.
1. You can't stop DeJuan Blair; you can only hope to contain him. After disappearing for the whole first half (1-of-6 shooting, four rebounds), the Panthers' big man in the middle somehow managed to earn his third straight double-double with more than 10 minutes still remaining in the game. The sophomore finished with a customary 10 points and 17 boards.
What changed for Blair between frames? For a fellow whose powerful backside recently triggered an allusion to Sir Mix-a-Lot in The New York Times, his coaches say that the difference-maker is mostly willpower. The sophomore -- who had at least a paw on virtually every rebound in the second half -- can take over the lane (and thus the game) when he wants to. With the next round slipping away, he clearly wanted to.
2. Pittsburgh's troika resembles a tripod. Most everyone picked the Panthers in this game, and Pitt headed into the intermission trailing 37-29. The game didn't even look vaguely close, with a winning formula seemingly discovered: knock out at least one leg of the Panthers' Big Three -- Fields, Young or Blair -- and the whole team topples.
Blair had disappeared. Fields (six points, three assists) looked unsteady and unimpressive next to fellow senior Young (11 points on 5-of-8 shooting). But then everything aligned, and the Panthers re-unleashed the best trio in college hoops. "When us three are clicking," Blair said, "it's tough for us to be beat."
3. Whether they win or lose, Villanova should be ready to do it close and ugly. Tonight, the Musketeers shot 33.8 percent from the field; Pitt actually shot worse, at 32.8 percent. Sure, this was a match-up of physical, defense-minded teams. But the Panthers haven't exactly been steamrolling their way to the Final Four before this, either. With Thursday's win on the ledger, its tourney resume is rounded out by similarly unsightly victories over East Tennessee State (72-62) and Oklahoma State (84-76). One imagines that Pitt's window for participating in a straightforward blowout has long been closed.
Fields only scored 14 points (to go along with six assists), but there is no debate here. (Let's also remember that the Brooklyn native beat Duke with a step-back three in Dec. 2007 with 4.7 seconds remaining in overtime.) "Levance loves that moment," Pitt assistant coach Pat Sandle says. "He's been working his entire life for that special moment -- down one, with a chance to make a shot to win the game."
In fact, given an answer this obvious, I would also like to note that I was further impressed at how correct Scoop Jackson was on ESPN when he observed that Young is the doppelgänger of sportswriter/TV personality Rob Parker.
Talk about a costly turnover. With 7:45 left in the first half, Fields threw a looping, sideline-to-sideline pass that sailed high and utterly obliterated the MacBook Pro of an ill-fated journalist from The Sporting News. The ball hammered the back of the screen, instantly rendering his desktop a spiderweb of cracks and kaleidoscopic fractals. (Literally minutes before, of course, I had silently pondered why the fellow seated immediately to his left, my colleague Tim Layden, simply took a notepad with him to press row. Print still has certain advantages in journalism, apparently.)
Villanova, which is a shame for Pitt. Blair would have eaten the Blue Devils' entire frontcourt as an appetizer, but the Wildcats -- who already beat the Panthers 67-57 in late January, in Philly -- got there first. The story come Saturday should be how the Big Three handles 'Nova's depth; tonight, six Wildcats scored seven points or more. (Perhaps frighteningly for Pitt, star sixth man Corey Fisher only had six in the rout.)