March 27, 2003: Dwyane Wade ends Howland era

Ben+Howland+took+over+as+Pitt%E2%80%99s+Men%E2%80%99s+Basketball+head+coach+in+1999+and+built+the+Panthers+into+a+contending+team+on+the+national+stage.+

Via Neon Tommy | Wikimedia Commons

Ben Howland took over as Pitt’s Men’s Basketball head coach in 1999 and built the Panthers into a contending team on the national stage.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

17 years ago today, Pitt fans found out who Dwyane Wade was.

Not that Wade was shrouded in anonymity before his legendary 2003 NCAA Tournament run — he was already one of the nation’s most outstanding players, averaging 21.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals as a junior at Marquette.

But for a casual Pitt basketball fan, March 27 was the day they became acquainted with one the greatest shooting guards ever.

As a four-year-old at the time, I won’t pretend like I saw the game firsthand. But as my dad tells it, he distinctly remembers thinking one thing while watching Wade dismantle the Panthers’ Elite Eight dreams on TV.

Where the hell did this kid come from?

The answer is Chicago, but you’d be forgiven for coming up with some conspiracy theory that Wade was dropped on a doorstep as an infant by the basketball gods. He turned in a vintage performance against the Panthers, scoring 22 points in a 77-74 victory that marked the end of the Ben Howland era.

Before getting into the details of the game, here are a few fun facts to jog your memory on where each team stood entering their Sweet 16 meeting.

— Marquette (26-5) was a member of Conference USA at the time, and this was only its fourth game ever against Pitt (28-5). The two became classic rivals in the Big East conference, but that only began after the Golden Eagles joined in 2005.

— Pitt was an incredibly balanced team on offense, with six players — Julius Page, Brandin Knight, Chevon Troutman, Jaron Brown, Donatas Zavackas and Ontario Lett, in that order — averaging between 12.2 and 9.7 points per game.

— In typical fashion under head coach Ben Howland, the Panthers had one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, allowing just 58.8 points per game — good for fourth in the country.

— Troutman’s 71.9% shooting from the field led all players nationally.

— The 6-foot-4 Wade, who became known as one of the greatest shot-blocking guards in NBA history, averaged 1.3 blocks per game this season — more than any player for Pitt.

— After falling in the conference title game the two previous seasons, Pitt finally won its first Big East Tournament Championship ever by blowing out UConn, 74-56, on March 15.

— The Panthers cruised past their first two Tournament opponents, beating No. 15 Wagner 87-61 and No. 7 Indiana 74-52.

— Marquette, on the other hand, narrowly escaped a first-round upset to No. 14 Holy Cross, winning 72-68.

— In addition to Wade, the Golden Eagles also had future NBA sharpshooter Steve Novak.

Wade certainly didn’t look like a living legend in the first half, scoring only two points on 1-5 shooting. Still, his teammates picked up the slack and the two teams went into the break tied 34-34.

Wade must’ve just needed to catch his breath. He came out of halftime like a man possessed, making all four of his shots over the first five minutes of the second half. It was clear that Pitt’s incredible season and 11-game winning streak were in jeopardy.

All hell broke loose with around 14 minutes remaining. Over the next five minutes, Wade made all the plays that would make him a fan favorite at the next level. First was a block on Lett where he seemed to defy gravity with how long he hovered in the air. On the other end of the court, Wade made Brown look silly with his patented fake fadeaway step-through. He capped it all off with an and-one layup which he made while plummeting toward the ground, eyes nowhere near the hoop.

A Wade steal and dunk with 4:50 remaining put Marquette ahead 70-59, seemingly ending the game.

But Pitt clawed its way back into the competition, embarking on an 11-1 run spearheaded by seven points from the uber-efficient Troutman, who finished with 15 points on 6-7 shooting. A Knight layup with 55 seconds left cut Pitt’s deficit to one, 73-72.

With the shot clock winding down on Marquette’s next possession, Wade put the finishing touch on his 20-point second-half masterpiece. He received the ball off a dribble handoff from guard Travis Diener and immediately attacked the basket, slashing past Knight with a jump stop before lofting a floater just over the fingers of a leaping Troutman.

It kissed high off the backboard and through the net, effectively ending the game, the storied career of Knight and Howland’s tenure at Pitt.

Knight had one last 3-point look to tie the game with seven seconds left, but his shot rimmed out.

For the game, Knight performed admirably in his final time donning the blue and gold, leading Pitt with 16 points and 11 assists. Brown chipped in 14 points and Page 11 to round out Pitt’s backcourt. The heartbreaking loss also marked the final game for Knight’s senior classmates, Lett and Zavackas.

That offseason, Howland accepted the only job he said he would ever leave Pitt for — head coaching duties at UCLA, a stone’s throw from where the Southern California native grew up. He went 89-40 in his four seasons leading the Panthers and currently serves as the head coach for Mississippi State.

Wade turned in an even better performance in the Elite Eight against No. 1 Kentucky, tallying 29 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds for just the fourth recorded triple double in NCAA Tournament history to that point. His Golden Eagles finally met their match in the Final Four, falling to No. 2 Kansas 94-61.

Of course, it wasn’t Wade’s college career that made him famous. He was drafted fifth overall by the Miami Heat later that same year, and from there set off on an illustrious NBA career that included 13 All-Star selections, one scoring title and three NBA Finals trophies.

Still, mention Wade to a die-hard Yinzer and they’ll speak not of his Hall of Fame career in the pros, but rather the infamous game he single-handedly upended one of Pitt’s most talented teams ever.

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