Pitt outlasts Villanova in Big East slugfest

Gary McGhee and the Panthers won a hard-fought match against the Wildcats. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- At first it looked harmless, like Isaiah Armwood actually was trying to pull Mouphtaou Yarou away from a potential fracas.

On replay, however, it was viewed otherwise. As Armwood, the Villanova sophomore, wrapped his arm around Yarou, he hit Nasir Robinson in the left eye.

“A cheap shot,’’ Robinson called it.

A technical Jim Burr ruled it.

Another day at the office, Pittsburgh declared.

Pitt always has been the sort of team that prides itself on taking an opponent’s best punch and responding. The Panthers typically mean that in the figurative sense.

Apparently they can take the literal body blows, too.

“He reached around Yarou and extended his arm,’’ Robinson said. “It was definitely intentional, a cheap shot. But that sort of stuff happens every day in practice. We get bloody noses, black eyes, you name it. It doesn’t matter. We just let the refs call it and keep playing.’’

Handling friendly fire is one thing. Walking onto a campus 14 hours into its fevered pitch and handling a punch to the face in a heated game that featured three technicals, 43 fouls, and so many floor burns and loose-ball dives that you were waiting for the coaches to call for their cut men, is another.

Yet Pitt absorbed the hits and kept on coming, not only keeping its composure but running on a post-punch 15-4 streak that ultimately proved the difference in a 57-54 victory against Villanova.

The Panthers, who halted the Wildcats’ 46-game win streak at the on-campus Pavilion, now stand atop the sequoia of conference perches, 11-1 in the Big East.

Which will mean what, exactly, on Monday?

Not likely a spot atop the rankings.

When the conversation tracks to who ranks among the nation’s best -- a conversation sure to take on a rowdier tenor after Ohio State’s loss at Wisconsin -- it rarely loops around to the Panthers.

Most everyone agrees that the Big East is the best conference in the country and no one will argue that the Panthers aren’t the best in the Big East.

But in 14 weeks of poll voting, the best team from the best league has yet to receive a single vote.

“I think it’s time for us to be in the conversation among the elite,’’ Brad Wanamaker said. “But really, we want to be in the conversation among the elite at the end of the season, not now. When they start talking about the national championship, that’s when we want to be talked about.’’

Ah, but therein lies the chronic rub with the Panthers, the dirty little secret that maybe has kept voters from casting their ballots in Pitt’s favor.

The Panthers have won at least 10 conference games in each of the past 10 seasons and have won 211 games since Jamie Dixon took over as head coach for the 2003-2004 season -- the fifth-most among Division I teams.

For all of that success, Pitt has no Final Fours appearances during that time. The Panthers were tantalizingly close two seasons ago, making it to the Elite Eight before Nova's Scottie Reynolds quashed the Panthers’ dream in one coast-to-coast dash.

Other than that, it has been during the Sweet 16 or earlier rounds that Pitt leaves the party.

And so fairly or not, the Panthers have been labeled a team built to withstand the rigors of the Big East but not necessarily built to win it all.

This team, though, might be different.

“This is as tough and as good a team as they’ve had,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Pitt seems to have a knack for losing key players at critical times. Mike Cook, Levance Fields, Jermaine Dixon are among the who's who to have missed stretches during their careers.

Now the Panthers can add Ashton Gibbs to the list. The junior, and most improved Big East player a year ago, is sidelined with an MCL injury in his left knee. He sat nattily dressed in a suit on the bench while his teammates played a game that was more akin to a brawl.

In the past, the Panthers sort of looked to survive without their star, finding a way to piecemeal their way to enough success while their injured player mended.

This time Dixon sent a much simpler message: relax.

“We’ve emphasized that since day one, that there’s no need to do anything differently,’’ Dixon said. “We’ve practiced without him, played without him. We don’t have to make it more than it is.’’

Echoed Wanamaker, “We were confident. We knew without Ashton somebody would have to step up but that didn’t meant someone had to fill Ashton’s shoes. We just had to go play our game.’’

And in arguably two of the toughest environments they’ll face this year -- at backyard brawl rival West Virginia and at "College GameDay" juiced Villanova -- the Panthers did exactly that.

This game was ugly, brutal and mean, just the way Pitt likes it. At times, the fans were crazy that the officials were blowing the whistle too much and others, angry that they were letting too much go.

When Robinson all but tackled Corey Fisher on a fast break, the play itself resulted merely in a foul call. It was the jawing after that earned the pair a double technical.

That’s sort of how it went all night, with bodies flying and shots not falling, a thing of beauty to those who prefer their basketball served with a side of hand-to-hand combat.

Not until the final minutes did there seem to be any fluidity, and naturally when it arrived, it came from the most nonsensical of sources.

In a game where the two teams would combine to shoot 4-of-25 from beyond the arc, a guy who took five 3-pointers all season drained one like it was nothing. Antonio Pena's 3 with under a minute got the Wildcats within three and after Pena stripped Wanamaker, Villanova -- burned by Rutgers on a 4-point play at the buzzer a game ago -- had a chance to at least force overtime.

Dominic Cheek missed a 3 from the baseline but Maurice Sutton corralled the rebound and passed it out to Maalik Wayns. Falling and eventually landing on his backside, Wayns drained the 3.

But it came a split second after Jim Burr already ruled the shot was after the buzzer. The game was over.

“We made too many mistakes in the second half,’’ Wright said. “I just think they were just physically older and tougher than us. It seemed like every time there was a loose ball in this game, we’d both get a hand on it but in the end, they’d end up ripping it out of ours.’’

Not just absorbing the punch, but delivering the knockout.