Not enough

By Karen Bielak

MINNEAPOLIS – The one thing that has powered the Pitt basketball team all year ended its… MINNEAPOLIS – The one thing that has powered the Pitt basketball team all year ended its season Thursday night in the Metrodome.

A defensive breakdown by the Panthers opened up an 11-point deficit that they were unable to overcome as Pitt fell to Marquette 77-74 in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re basically in shock that the season is over,” Pitt head coach Ben Howland said. “It’s tough to lose a game we thought we had a great chance to win.”

It was expected to be a close matchup with Pitt entering the game as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region and Marquette as the No. 3 seed, and the game certainly lived up to its expectations.

The Panthers pulled within one with 15 seconds remaining in the game after two free throws by Brandin Knight. The Golden Eagles’ Scott Merritt then countered with two free throws of his own to give the ball back to Pitt with 11.4 seconds left and a 77-74 deficit.

Knight tried to send the game into overtime as he attempted a three-point shot, but it was no good, crushing Pitt’s hopes for the school’s first-ever appearance in the Elite Eight.

“I’m sick; it’s hard to swallow the loss,” Knight said. “We lost to a good team but there were a lot of things we could have done better.”

The Panthers finish their season at 28-5 and have now fallen in the Sweet Sixteen two seasons in a row after losing to Kent State last year in Lexington, Ky.

Marquette, from nearby Milwaukee, improves to 26-5 and will now face No. 1 seed Kentucky Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats defeated Wisconsin 63-57 on Thursday to advance.

“We never backed down and kept battling,” Marquette head coach Tom Crean said.

The Golden Eagles were able to break down a Pitt defense that has been stifling all season. The 77 points allowed are just the second highest of the year behind the Panthers’ first loss of the season, when they allowed 79 points at Georgia.

“Ultimately what cost us was our defense,” Howland said. “We were too anxious to make plays. We let them get open looks and gambled defensively.”

Marquette’s Dwyane Wade scored 20 second-half points to spark the Golden Eagles and break open what had been a tight game. Wade, who was held to just two points in the first half, didn’t let that bother him.

“My teammates give me confidence and it just came to me,” Wade said.

“There is no question he is the best player in America,” teammate Steve Novak said.

But for another of America’s great players, Pitt’s loss means not only the end of a season, but the end of a career. Knight scored a team high 16 points and had a season high 11 assists in his final game in a Panther uniform.

“He is so special, a great player, competitor and winner,” Howland said. “What he has done is unparalled in Pitt basketball history and I couldn’t be prouder.”

It was also the final game for seniors Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas and a surprising defeat for many who expected a Pitt/Kentucky matchup.

“We’re really disappointed because we felt we had a chance to make a run at the Final Four,” Howland said. “But it doesn’t diminish what we’ve accomplished.”

It took two minutes and 20 seconds for the first basket of the game to drop as Marquette took a 2-0 lead. But the Panthers would answer back by going on an 8-0 run fueled by five points from Zavackas and two traveling calls on the Golden Eagles.

Marquette closed in with back-to-back baskets from Merritt and Robert Jackson but Knight countered with a three-pointer to put the Panthers ahead 11-6. Pitt extended its lead to nine after a bucket by Lett and a breakaway dunk by Julius Page after intercepting a Golden Eagle pass at the other end.

But Marquette fought back into the game as it went on an 11-2 run to recapture the lead 22-21 with 5:32 remaining in the first half. The Golden Eagles had baskets from four different players during that stretch, including back-to-back shots from behind the arc by Karon Bradley and Todd Townsend that forced Pitt to call timeout and energized the crowd. Marquette had the advantage of not only having support from its fans, but also from many of the Wisconsin fans who remained after their game with Kentucky to cheer on their in-state rival.

“It’s a state of Wisconsin accomplishment,” Crean said of the victory. “I can’t thank the Wisconsin fans enough. They had a tough ball game and stayed for our game to cheer and support us.”

Pitt once again moved in front, 23-22, with a basket by Chevon Troutman, who also went to the foul line, where he connected on both of his free throws. The Panthers would momentarily surrender the lead as Marquette sunk two baskets, but Page retaliated with a three-point shot and Troutman followed with two points of his own.

But the Golden Eagles tied the game at 30 apiece with a three-pointer by Bradley, prompting Crean to walk across the front of his bench saying, “It’s a ball game, boys.” Each team would put four more points on the board to enter halftime tied at 34.

But Marquette would break the game open in the second half as Wade took over. He scored eight straight points for the Golden Eagles to take a 51-44 lead. Marquette would later open up a nine-point lead on a free-throw by Wade. Jaron Brown added a bucket and a free throw to cut the lead to 60-54, but Travis Diener extended the Marquette lead with a basket at the other end.

The Golden Eagles extended their lead to 10 points on a bucket by Merritt before back-to-back baskets by Page and Carl Krauser. But Wade continued to dominate as five more points from him opened up a 70-59 lead for Marquette.

“Dwyane has the ability to take over a game at any time, so we just have to find him,” Diener said.

The Golden Eagles looked to be in complete control but Pitt came answering back, cutting to lead to just one with less than a minute and a half left on the clock. Brown sunk a basket before Troutman added two more and a bucket from the charity stripe. A shot by Wade at the other end went in and then out and Troutman, who finished the game with 15 points, sunk yet another basket to bring the score to 71-70.

Two free throws by Merritt extended Marquette’s lead to 73-70 with 1:08 left in the game. A basket by Knight again brought Pitt within one, but Wade answered with two points of his own to give the Golden Eagles a three-point lead with 21 seconds remaining that proved to be enough for the victory.

“We knew we were going against an excellent team that would not beat themselves,” Crean said. “But our players never flinched when they lost the lead and I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”