Villanova, Pitt meet again

March, 27, 2009
BOSTON -- Villanova's players had no idea about the history of the Spectrum. But Wildcats coach Jay Wright did.

He knew once the old home of the Sixers and Flyers got rockin', the Wildcats were in the midst of something special. This was the last game ever to be played at the Spectrum. And Villanova was on the verge of finally breaking through with a significant win.

Nova beat Pitt by 10 on that late January night, a game that saw DeJuan Blair become shackled by foul trouble and limited to just seven points and eight boards in 20 minutes, along with key reserve guard Brad Wanamaker fouling out after scoring 13 points in 22 minutes.

Wright said he has never coached in a hotter environment, sweating throughout the evening.

"The place was packed," said Wright, who grew up in the area and knew the history of the Spectrum quite well. "Everybody is fired up."

The game had been promoted in Philadelphia, and Wright said at the end of the game "the whole place was standing. There was a huge banner, the last game ever played, Pitt versus Villanova. For them it was a regular-season game. For us and everybody in Philadelphia it was a big, big event."

The game seemed to give the Wildcats instant credibility. They ripped off wins at Providence, over Syracuse and Marquette at home, and, but for a blip at West Virginia where their defense collapsed and a flat two-point loss at home to Georgetown, the Wildcats have been flying high. The only other defeat was a loss to eventual champ Louisville in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.

"I said to our staff after that [Pitt] game, 'Thank God we played them in here on this night and we don't have to see them again.' That was exactly what I said to our staff after the game," Wright said. "I really didn't think we were going to see them. But here they are. And they are good."

With the Wildcats and Panthers meeting in Saturday's Elite Eight game at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, it's certain that at least one Big East team will be in the Final Four. Two others could follow if Connecticut beats Missouri in the West Regional final in Glendale, Ariz., and Louisville beats Michigan State the Midwest Regional final Sunday in Indianapolis.

"As the year went on, now as we go in the postseason play, to be in this position is quite remarkable," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "Usually you beat each other up, but somehow we've had some teams survive it. And to be in this position, however it ends up, I think [the conference] did what is very hard to do, live up to coaches' lofty proclamation."

Blair said picking up two quick fouls in that Nova game prevented him from getting into any sort of rhythm. He said he has the motivation to ensure that doesn't occur Saturday. It might sound obvious, but Blair has to stay on the floor, said Pitt senior Sam Young. Not turning the ball over against Villanova's perimeter pressure is also paramount for a Pitt win.

"I think if we win the boards and collect on the turnovers and keep DeJuan on the floor," Young said, "then we're in pretty good shape."

There is a common respect between these two teams. They didn't play twice this season. There was no nastiness in the one meeting. Villanova is on a roll, while Pitt is grinding out wins. The Panthers were projected to get to the Elite Eight, while Villanova was not. Pitt has a co-Big East Player of the Year winner in Blair, while Nova has a player in Dante Cunningham, who along with Louisville's Terrence Williams, could have argued for the POY honor to be split four ways. Pitt starts three seniors, a junior and a sophomore. Nova starts three seniors and two juniors. The rosters are dominated by Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.

Wright summed up his admiration for Pitt senior guard Levance Fields, who has the same makeup as many of the Nova guards who are from the same New York metropolitan area.

"We've coached those kids, those New York kids, those New York guards," Wright said. "What we respect about them is they are fearless. They do not fear losing a game."

Fields made the 3-pointer to beat Xavier on Thursday night. Wright likened Fields to another former Pitt-New York-area guard in Carl Krauser, who would make money shots late in the game, even if he struggled earlier.

"Levance does the same thing," Wright said. "We had guys like that. We had Speedy Claxton [when Wright coached at Hofstra), we had Randy Foye and Allan Ray [at Nova]. When the game is on the line, they love to have the ball in their hands. What you don't realize is sometimes when you lose a close game, those are the guys that miss the shot. But they don't remember that. They want to hit the big one."

Who will hit the big one Saturday if it's a close game at the end? Who knows? But with big-shot players like Fields, Young, Blair, Cunningham, Reggie Redding and Scottie Reynolds, there are certainly plenty of good options to go around.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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