By any measure, this is the Golden Age of Pittsburgh basketball. In the last decade, the Panthers have had nine 25-win seasons, gotten to the Sweet 16 five times and become an elite member of an elite conference, the Big East.
And for what? That’s what coach Jamie Dixon and his players had to be asking themselves Saturday night after they went crashing out of the NCAA tournament again. For all its success, you see, Pitt has never been to the Final Four – and it won’t get there this year, either. Butler, the 2010 tourney runner-up, saw to that with a 71-70 second-round victory at Verizon Center. A 28-6 record, a Big East regular-season title, a No. 1 seed in the Southeast … all of it went for naught for the Panthers.
It’s hard to explain, Pittsburgh’s continuing postseason disappointment. You’d think, going up against UConn, Syracuse et al. night after night, the Panthers would be as prepared as anybody for the pressure-filled conditions in the NCAAs. What can you say, though? Stuff happens. The stuff that happened against Butler included two foul calls in the last 1.4 seconds – one that went Pitt’s way, one that didn’t – that decided the outcome. How often have you seen two fouls called in the final two seconds – both unintentional and both, from this vantage point, quite legitimate?
The first foul, with Butler leading 70-69 after a lay-in by 6-foot-11 center Andrew Smith, happened right in front of the Pittsburgh bench. The Panthers’ Gilbert Brown was dribbling hurriedly upcourt, trying to get off some semblance of a makeable shot, when the Bulldogs’ Shelvin Mack bumped him. That gave Brown, Pitt’s high scorer with 24 points, two free throws and a chance to win the game.
Mack, who led everybody with 30 points (including seven threes), saw his career flash before his eyes. “Once the call was made,” he said, “I realized it was the biggest mistake of my life.” Actually, let him amend that: “It was probably the worst foul in Butler history.”
That sounds about right.
After a timeout, Brown, amid much carrying on by the capacity crowd, stepped to the line and made the first shot. But the second rolled off the rim and into the hands of the Bulldogs’ Matt Howard, who was then hacked by Pittsburgh’s Nasir Robinson. So in the span of six-tenths of a second, we witnessed “probably the worst foul in Butler history” and probably the worst foul in Pitt history. What a ballgame.
The Bulldogs were in the double bonus, so Howard – who had hit the buzzer-beater against Old Dominion in the first round – had more margin for error than Brown did. Not that he needed it. He sank the first free throw, intentionally missed the second (so the Panthers wouldn’t be able to run any kind of organized play), and the latest episode of the Pittsburgh’s personal NCAA tourney “Twilight Zone” was complete.
As much winning as Pitt has done in recent years, “everybody remembers the [season-ending] losses,” Dixon said. And Panthers fans figure to remember this loss as long as any of them.
“We’ve just gotta keep working hard and have great years and keep putting ourselves in this position,” he said. “Other teams would love to be in the position we’ve been in.”
Still, there was an incredulity in his voice. “I thought if we could outrebound them by 11 [33-22] and outshoot them by a good distance [56.5 percent to 46.2 percent], we’d be in good shape. But we didn’t get the result we wanted. We’ve gotta take care of business all the way through. We got down early [by as much as 12, 30-18], and it hurt us.”
We’ve gotta take care of business all the way through. That might pinpoint, as much as anything, Pittsburgh’s problems in the NCAAs. The Panthers have had a series of favorable seeds and matchups and just haven’t taken advantage.
It’s all about finishing. The Butler Bulldogs have been fantastic finishers. They made the play they needed to make at the end of the ODU game – somehow – and they made the plays they needed to make at the end of Saturday night’s game. They’re 23-3 this season when they’ve had the halftime lead. Translation: Once victory is within reach, they almost always grab hold of it.
So for the second year in a row, the Butler Dream moves on to the Sweet 16. And for the 10th year in a row, Pitt is left to ponder What Went Wrong. This can’t keep up forever for the poor Panthers, can it?