Sunday March 29th, 2009

BOSTON -- John Adams sees more than a few games as the NCAA's national coordinator of officiating. He permits his eyes to wander from the zebras to the spectacle, and Saturday at the TD Banknorth Garden -- midway through the second half of the 80th game he has witnessed this season that ended with Villanova on top 78-76 (RECAP | BOX) -- he turned to me courtside and said, "This is probably the best game I've seen all year."

Villanova and Pitt, Big East brethren turned derbying rivals for a spot in the Final Four, had been going back and forth in this East Regional title game. They seemed determined to provide an antidote to an NCAA tournament Week Two plagued by blowouts. By night's end, the two teams would have delivered 15 lead changes. Ten times the score would stand tied. Pitt had to deal with the second-half exit of Jermaine Dixon with a bum leg; 'Nova had to muddle through after Dante Cunningham picked up his fourth foul with eight minutes to play.

An officiating crew featuring two referees who hadn't worked a Big East game all season offered a further challenge: Which team would prove to be most adaptable to a new set of laws, to go off script?

With scarcely three minutes to play it looked as if Pitt would. The Panthers had seized a 67-63 lead after Dixon, who had gallantly returned, knocked down a three-pointer. After the Wildcats fumbled away the next possession, Villanova coach Jay Wright called timeout.

Within a minute, 'Nova had stripped Dixon of the ball, Dwayne Anderson had scored on an old-fashioned three-point play, and Corey Fisher had scored on a layup. With Villanova now up 68-67, there was Wright's rival, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, making the "T" sign.

But the see-saw wasn't done wobbling.

Levance Fields knocked down two free throws. 69-68 Pitt, 2:01 to play.

Anderson came back with a three. 71-69 'Nova, 1:51 left.

And just when it looked as if the Wildcats would pull away -- they held a 76-72 lead with 20 seconds to play -- the real drama began. DeJuan Blair scored inside for the Panthers, and on the ensuing inbounds play, Reggie Redding heaved a long pass downcourt to Cunningham. Only Redding heaved it a little too long. Cunningham could only just save the ball inbounds, whereupon Sam Young chased it down and fed it to Fields, who was fouled hard at midcourt by Fisher.

To tie the score at 76, Fields sank a free throw on either side of a timeout that seemed to have been called in vain to ice him. In fact, Villanova used that timeout to plot Redding's redemption.

With :05.5 remaining on the clock, Redding's inbounds pass did indeed find Cunningham, this time at midcourt. Cunningham flipped the ball to Scottie Reynolds, who was streaking up the right sideline. Reynolds zagged into the lane, where he muscled up the winning basket.

The winning basket, it should be noted, only because all but a half-second now remained.

You could call this game the battle of the Big East arriviste coaches.

You could call it, for old time's sake, the Bobby Martin Bowl, after the long-ago recruit from Atlantic City who touched off a fierce feud between Pitt and Villanova back in the mid-Eighties. (For the record: A Panther assistant named John Calipari wooed Martin to the Steel City; Villanova's coach at the time, Rollie Massimino, would probably choose to spell that "Steal City," for he never forgot, and must have taken special delight in the view from his front-row seat, where Wright would find him for a post-game embrace.)

But most of all, you could call this a wonderful, wonderful game.

By the final minutes, Adams had taken that qualifier "probably" and found for it an appropriate receptacle, as had Reynolds on his last decisive sally to the hoop.

"Told you," Adams said. "Best game all year."

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