Sunday, March 16, 2003

Big East: Pitt wins title


No. 5 Pittsburgh 74, Connecticut 56

By Jim O'Connell
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Brandin Knight was up until 2 a.m. receiving treatment on his injured ankle. He got up early Saturday morning for more. He had to be ready for Pittsburgh's third Big East championship game in as many years.

Despite limping around the Madison Square Garden court, Knight led the fifth-ranked Panthers to the first title in school history, 74-56 over Connecticut on Saturday night.

"I wasn't going to miss this game for anything," he said. "The only way to miss it would have been if I couldn't walk."

Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland knew who his starting point guard would be.

"He would have killed me if I tried to keep him out," Howland said. "That didn't even enter my mind."

Knight, who was injured in the semifinal win over Boston College, and fellow seniors Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett all got to share in the celebration for the first time as the Panthers (26-4) ended their two-title game losing streak with their defense, the upperclassmen's leadership and big contributions from some of the underclassmen.

"I just can't say enough about our team," said Knight, the conference's player of the year last season. "All the guys came off the bench and were great. They all just step up and make plays."

Connecticut (21-9), which beat Pittsburgh 74-65 in double overtime in last year's championship game, managed just six points over the final six minutes as the Panthers pulled away.

The Huskies were trying to tie Georgetown's record of six tournament titles and this one would have been very special for coach Jim Calhoun, who missed five games during the season for prostate cancer surgery.

"They were the tougher team and wore us down with their mental toughness," Calhoun said. "They held us to 19 points in the second half and won the game with defense and by doing a terrific job of controlling their own offense and defense."

Jaron Brown had 19 points and 10 rebounds for Pittsburgh, which has won nine straight games and held the opponent to less than 60 points in the last five of those. Knight had 16 points, while Julius Page, the tournament MVP had 14, and Chevon Troutman 12.

Lett and Zavackas were both saddled with foul trouble, but they and Knight were the three seniors with so much on the line.

"It makes it more special," Knight said of losing the first two trips to the championship. "I was feeling like the Buffalo Bills. We finally got over the hump, overcame all the odds and won the game.

"We just didn't want to go through that again. That's not a good feeling to go home No. 2 and look at that runner-up trophy."

Page, a junior, was also in his third championship game.

"I just wasn't going to leave the floor with us losing because I didn't play hard," he said.

Taliek Brown had 15 points and Ben Gordon added 13 for the Huskies, who shot 32 percent (8-for-25) in the second half and finished with 20 turnovers.

Marcus White's free throw with 5:58 to play got Connecticut within 55-51. Pittsburgh took over despite making just two field goals the rest of the way, the second a 3 by Brown as the shot clock ran out with 20 seconds left in the game. The Panthers were 14-for-18 from the free throw line over the final 4:18 as they outscored the Huskies 19-5 to close the game.

Knight, who was a heroic figure in defeat last year when he tried to carry the Panthers despite having hurt his leg, showed how much this meant to him late in the game.

With Pitt leading by 14 points and 1:30 left to play, Connecticut rolled the ball in bounds to try and save a few seconds. Knight ran in from half court, dived on the floor and scooped up the loose ball, calling a timeout while he was on the court. The Pitt bench greeted him as if he had just hit a game-winning shot.

"I don't know what to say about that," he said. "We all made the plays we had to make."

Knight had six assists and was 4-for-10 from the field but he was 3-for-6 from 3-point range in 37 minutes.

Connecticut was 5-2 in its previous championship game appearances, winning it in 1990, '96, '98, '99 and last season. Calhoun was the coach for all of those and he still trails Georgetown's John Thompson by one for most championships by a coach.

Pittsburgh will almost certainly be a No. 2 seed when the NCAA field is announced Sunday and has a chance to steal its way to a possible No. 1.

"I'm not going to worry about that," Howland said. "We'll play whoever they tell us to wherever they tell us to."

The Huskies, who had won three straight games, will probably be a fifth or sixth seed.

"We'll play next week. You have to look at it that way," Calhoun said. "I know (Arizona coach) Lute (Olson) said conference tournaments don't count. Look at my face, they count. Take my blood pressure right now, they count."




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