- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Virginia Commonwealth had enough to make double-digit comebacks in the second half of its two NCAA tournament games.

A rally in overtime of the Rams second-round game against Pittsburgh was another story.

The feisty Colonial Athletic Association champions erased a 19-point deficit, then never led in the extra period as third-seeded Pittsburgh advanced to the West Region semifinals with an 84-79 victory at HSBC Arena.

The Panthers (29-7) will meet the winner of last nights late game between UCLA and Indiana on Thursday in San Jose, Calif.

B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa both scored 20 points for the No. 11 Rams (28-7), nearly extended an impressive run that started with a victory over national power Duke in the first round on Thursday.

“The only way we were going to stop fighting was if the time ran out,” VCU guard Eric Maynor said. “We just fell short tonight.”

Sam Young came off the bench to score a team-high 15 points, including the clinching free throws with 6.6 seconds left, for Pittsburgh.

The Panthers advanced to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2004, but not before Virginia Commonwealth nearly joined Pacific (2005) and Bradley (2006) in the pantheon of spunky, unheralded programs to knock off the Big East bullies in the first two rounds in recent years.

For all their foibles, the Panthers nearly won it in regulation. Guard Levance Fields stepped to the foul line with two seconds left and a 69-69 tie, but missed both free throws to force overtime.

Pittsburgh finally took the lead early in overtime on Aaron Grays basket, then pushed its edge to 78-71 after Fields knocked down a high-degree-of-difficulty — certainly more demanding than a free throw — 3-pointer over Maynor and Ronald Ramon made another 3 from the right corner.

The Rams nevertheless made it interesting in the final minute after Eric Maynors drive with 22.6 seconds pulled VCU within 80-79. Pittsburghs Mike Cook made two free throws a few seconds later to extend the lead back to three.

Walker had an open look on the right wing in the closing seconds, but it clanked off the rim. Young was fouled in the loose ball scramble and made two foul shots to extinguish the Rams season.

“Its a tough, tough loss, but hopefully this will be a building block for us from this point going forward,” first-year coach Anthony Grant said.

The physically superior Panthers built a 51-32 lead in the second half and were still up 58-42 after Fields 3-pointer with 8:56 left. Yet instead of coasting to its second straight blowout victory, Pittsburgh unraveled in the face of a nasty full-court press that flummoxed VCUs opponents throughout the season.

Some of it was injuries and illness. Gray was battling a case of food poisoning, while Cook was also limited after suffering an undisclosed injury yesterday.

“They kept hustling and getting deflections from behind,” Fields said. “We stopped attacking and we probably tried to take the air out of the ball too soon. It kind of came back to bite us in the butt, but we got the job done in overtime.”

Virginia Commonwealth unleashed a 27-9 run in less than eight minutes, finally taking the lead on Pellot-Rosas layup with 52 seconds left. Young tied it with a layup moments later, and Pellot-Rosas missed 3-pointer preceded Fields missed free throws.

Fans cheered the Rams as they walked off the final time during a season in which they set a school record for victories and won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1985. But there was no sense of satisfaction from Virginia Commonwealth, which nevertheless acquitted itself well during its impressive postseason stay.

“I have a bunch of guys that are extremely disappointed because they believed they could win the game and believed in each other,” Grant said. “More than losing the game, theyre disappointed this team doesnt get to play together and compete together for the rest of the season.”

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