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Pitt's First Four Win Brings Meaning Back to March Madness

The Pitt Panthers mere existence in the NCAA Tournament rebuilt a community and spirit that had been lost.

DAYTON -- Jeff Capel's stroll to the locker room at halftime was interrupted by CBS sideline reporter Jon Rothstein, who conducted a quick interview with the head coach of the Pitt Panthers before he met with his team to review, reset and try to come out stronger in the second half. 

The Panthers were surrounded by a well-traveled fan base that turned a neutral site into a home environment and nine lead changes made for a thrilling first half that gave them plenty to cheer and stress over. But even as his team went to the locker room holding the slimmest of leads over Mississippi State, Capel wasn't stressed. He was enjoying himself. 

“I forgot how fun this is, man," Capel said. "What an unbelievable environment. Our guys are fighting their butts off. We’re in there battling against a really good, physical, athletic team."

Like the Pitt fans that traveled to cheer him and his team on, it'd been a while since Capel had been in an NCAA Tournament. It had been seven years since the Panthers qualified for the Big Dance and five since Capel had last experienced it. Time away makes it easy to forget why basketball fans spend 11 months waiting for March. 

For as long as Capel's been at Pitt, March Madness served as an annual reminder of how quickly and deeply the program had fallen. The fantastic entertainment it provides had been muted by the fact that the Panthers weren't there. As you watch other teams and fans compete, stress, celebrate and mourn on the sport's biggest stage, the absence of personal investment in a team competing for the national title numbs the emotion. 

For two hours, Pitt and Mississippi State stole the college basketball spotlight and delivered a classic battle. In their first postseason appearance since the days Jamie Dixon roamed the sideline, the Panthers dazzled and frustrated, with each moment heightened by the fact that it was mid-March and they were still alive. The atmosphere at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio spoke for itself and proved Pitt doesn't have to win a national championship to be worth caring about again. 

This time of year yields a different, more compelling and energetic brand of basketball than the regular season and it was reflected in the crowd that filled the stands and the game that unfolded in front of them. 

Guillermo Diaz Graham, who made a spot start at center for the inured Federiko Federiko, never grew up watching this tournament in his home country of Spain. During warmups, he wondered aloud to teammate Adian Fisch why so many people came to watch them. Fisch explained the phenomena simply. 

“As soon as we walked on the court I went to Fisch and I was like, ‘Fisch, why are there so many people here?" Diaz Graham said. "And he was like, ‘March Madness baby, that’s how it is.’ It was amazing. I wasn’t expecting all these Pitt fans here and it felt like playing at home."

All of the cheers that were pent up in Pitt fans over years of mediocrity came spilling out onto the court while the Panthers battled Mississippi State surrounded by March Madness signage and regalia. Pitt's return to the Big Dance rebuilt a community and collective spirit lost to losing and disinterest and their wins in this event are the payoff for the suffering of years past. 

You assume a risk when you step onto the big stage. Humiliation and heartbreak are always on the table but so are ecstasy and accomplishment. Luckily for Pitt fans, their team delivered the latter. 

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