Redemption and Rosie O’Grady’s: Pitt’s 2008 Big East Title from the stands

Archival photos of Pitt’s 2008 Big East Tournament win.

Image via the Pitt News Archives

Archival photos of Pitt’s 2008 Big East Tournament win.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

New York has a distinctive basketball culture. It is blue-collar, born from pick-up games on blacktops and manifested through moxie.

So when the Big East basketball tournament moved to New York City in 1983, member teams embraced the natural fit — and no one embodied the host city’s gritty personality more than the 2008 Pitt Panthers.

Jeff Greer reported on Pitt basketball for The Pitt News for four years before graduating in 2008. Now a contributing writer for The Athletic, Greer still remembers covering that team during the roller coaster of its 2008 season. Pitt entered the 2007-08 season ranked No. 22 in preseason polls and the hype its talented roster brought with it grew as the season progressed.

After an early season win over No. 6 Duke rocketed the Panthers into the top 10, Greer believed that Pitt had what it took to make an elusive Final Four. But those hopes were slowly derailed through conference play and truly sank during a 3-4 finish to the regular season.

Greer made the trek to New York that March, joined by then-fellow sports editor Pat Mitsch and photographer Pete Madia, not expecting much.

“By the time the Big East Tournament rolled around, this was clearly an [NCAA] Tournament team, but it was kind of the feeling as my freshman year when they were in an 8-9 [seed] game versus Pacific and lost,” Greer said. “I remember thinking this team was so flawed despite having so much talent, that it didn’t seem like they had the right makeup to do anything at all in March.”

But even his low expectations for the team couldn’t overshadow the reverence Greer, a self-described basketball junkie, had for the tournament and its venue, Madison Square Garden.

“You walk in and the way the lighting is set up, it’s like a theater,” he said. “The court is the stage and the lights are really bright on the stage and the early rows leading up in all directions. But then when you look up it’s kind of dark and you can’t see as many people in the upper rows … I was taught to revere the old Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden, all these places that were kind of basketball temples.”

This was Greer and Mitsch’s second time covering the tournament in New York. They recall the year prior, when the trio had little idea of where to go or what to do. Upon entering MSG for the first time, it was a struggle to keep nerves in check.

“I just remember trying to keep it all together and trying to act like I belonged there,” Mitsch said. “The first time you’re trying to act like you know the ropes when really, I had no clue.”

Fast forward to the following year, and Greer, Mitsch and Madia were more familiar with the Garden’s game-day set up. They were settling into a new city that Pitt’s players knew too well.

New York natives Levance Fields, Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin brought their trademark tenacity back to the city that had cultivated it. The homecoming of Pitt’s New York kids and their quest for redemption after consecutive losses in the championship game became a recurring story line throughout the tournament.

It was an all-too-familiar tale in which Pitt had long fallen just short. The Panthers had made seven trips to the title game in eight years, but had only one win to show for it. And as former head coach Ben Howland exited and Jamie Dixon entered, their inability to finish weighed heavier and heavier.

The Panthers opened their 2008 tournament run with a relatively unassuming 7-10 game against Cincinnati. Pitt staved off 30 points from the Bearcats’ sophomore star Deonta Vaughn and won 70-64 behind 21 points from junior forward Sam Young and four 3-pointers from Ramon.

A close win, but not miraculous. Helpful for its postseason seeding, but not essential. It was not until the following night that Pitt fans realized they were watching something special.

Pitt’s reward for downing Cincinnati? A date with the No. 2 seed Louisville, a team loaded with talent and coached by the famed Rick Pitino, 24 hours later. It was a tight game the entire way, culminating in overtime. But the Panthers outscored the Cardinals 14-7 in OT and lived to play another day.

Another 21 points from Young and a trio of triples from Ramon not only propelled Pitt into the next round, but also lit a fire under the entire fanbase.

After the game, Mitsch, Greer and Madia found their way to a nearby bar — Rosie O’Grady’s — that was swamped by Panther fans. Only a 10-minute subway ride from MSG, it was where New York’s Pitt community held post-game celebrations that became increasingly more raucous.

O’Grady’s itself wasn’t particularly memorable, according to Mitsch. But it was the fans who congregated there who made it a hot spot.

“I live in New York City now, so I’ve been to that place since then and it’s really just another Irish pub in midtown Manhattan,” Mitsch said. “There are a thousand of them. But at the time, it was the place to be if you were a Pitt fan … You’d be walking in and out come Dick Groat and Bill Hillgrove slapping you on the back … We were really lucky to get to be a part of that. To say our eyes were wide is an understatement.”

Panther fans revelled in the win alongside the legendary Pitt radio broadcast duo of Hillgrove and Groat. The masses inside of O’Grady’s began to realize what the Louisville win meant. If the Panthers could beat a team as talented as that, who would stop them?

The following day, Pitt played its third game in as many days against its second straight ranked opponent, Marquette, in the semifinal. Young poured on his third consecutive 20-point game and was now eyeing the tournament scoring record. The Panthers staved off a second-half comeback from the Golden Eagles and prepared to take on top-seeded Georgetown the next night.

Against the Hoyas, Pitt fell behind early but recovered and used a run late in the second half to separate itself. With Dan Shulman on the television call repeating over and over Pitt’s record of disappointment in championship games, Fields and Ramon showed incredible poise at the free throw line to shut the door on a Hoya comeback and secure the Big East title.

As student reporters, Mitsch and Greer were not assigned prime seating in the press row. But as the week wore on and media outlets for defeated teams departed, the duo moved closer and closer to the floor. From their improved vantage, they saw confidence replace desperation on the beleaguered faces of players like Fields and Ramon as the final buzzer neared.

Meanwhile Madia, who still does photography work for Pitt Athletics, was nestled in along a packed baseline capturing that belief with his camera. Throughout that season, Madia developed a sixth sense for who would be the most photogenic and when.

“The cool thing about this year and this team was that it was my senior year,” he said. “So not only had I been covering these guys, but had gone to college with them too and saw them around campus. I had a different connection with those guys than I do with teams now.”

And it is those connections with the players who grew the program’s peak that cause the statistical details of that game to fall to the wayside in favor of the emotions it elicited. It is what the four wins meant that loom largest in Pitt lore.

Dixon silenced critics with a tournament title and his program took a major leap from perennial runner-up to national power. The New York kids won a championship in their hometown using a style that defined not only the city they represented, but an era of the sport.

Madison Square Garden’s eternal sanctity contrasted with the rock fight of a college basketball tournament it hosted. But those who have experienced it remember simply the spectacle the combination of event and venue created.

For Greer and his friends, the spectacle was unexpected, but turned into an unforgettable week of survival, victory and celebration.

“We would always have these conversations about when we had to check out [of the hotel], but we just never had to check out,” he said. “We kind of just kept staying until Sunday … We kept going back to the same bar every night to celebrate with Pitt people and it kept being filled with belief every night.”