by Aaron Kaplowitz
On Saturday, the battle for Pennsylvania will be settled in Boston. Following Pittsburgh’s 60-55 victory over Xavier and Villanova’s 77-54 manhandling of Duke, Penn’s pride is on the line when the two Big East powers meet for a chance to reach the Final Four.
In the opening game, Xavier took a 37-29 lead to the locker room, putting the Big East on notice. The Musketeers beat the Panthers at their own game, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds and outscoring the favorites 16-10 in the paint.
Pitt came out hungry in the second half with DeJuan Blair leading the charge. Blair played determined, devouring rebound after rebound to power the Pitt charge. He finished with 10 points and 17 boards.
With five minutes left to play, Pitt’s Jermaine Dixon jumped the passing lanes perfectly to intercept the basketball. He pushed the ball ahead and went in for an uncontested layup. Embarrassingly, he lost his footing, missed the layup and fell to the floor. Lucky for Dixon, Levance Fields followed his miss to save the two points. Dixon’s pride, however, is still in question.
“[My teammates] asked me what I was thinking, someone said I took off from too far,” Dixon said. “That happened before in a game when I missed the layup. And after that Levance told me he’s always going to follow the shot when I take a layup.”
Shining moments aside, the teams found themselves deadlocked at 52 with two minutes to play. Xavier’s Dante Jackson struck first, going up and under for a nifty layup to push Xavier ahead, 54-52. Fields answered with a tough three that splashed through the net. Pittsburgh 55, Xavier 54.
Looking to respond, Xavier lost the ball with 27 seconds left. Fields poked the ball away and coasted in for the lay-in to push the lead to three. On the next trip down the court Blair fouled Terrell Holloway on the drive. He would only hit the front end of a one-and-one, clinching the win for Jamie Dixon’s squad.
In the second game, Villanova outscored Duke 44-18 in the paint to power its way past Coach K’s squad.
The Wildcats played patient and under control, finding open shots from all over the court throughout the second half. They rotated the ball efficiently around the perimeter and Duke had no answer for Dante Cunningham inside.
“We’re getting better this late in the year, which is exciting,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
Tomorrow we’ll see how much better the Wildcats can get in a showdown that promises to flip the Keystone State on its head.
– Stat of the night: Duke hit 47.1 percent from downtown in their first two Tournament games. Against Villanova they shot only 18.5 percent (5 for 27).
– Sam Young’s motor never stops. He is consistently on the go.
– The Pitt pep band gets East region’s Top Song award for its rendition of The Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright.”
– Despite trailing at the half seven to 11 on offensive rebounds, Pitt grabbed 11 second half offensive rebounds to Xavier’s six.
– If a Field of 64 for cheerleaders existed, Duke’s squad would get a 16 seed.
– Xavier head coach Sean Miller spent his college days drilling threes for Pitt.
– Duke’s Gerald Henderson didn’t score his first points of the game until he hit a pair of free throws with 1:10 to play in the first half.
– At halftime I happened to walk off the court at the same time as the refs. Let me tell you, it’s a harrowing experience. These refs have to be totally secure with themselves, otherwise they must cry themselves through halftime.
– Like most schools facing Duke, Villanova’s fans lost all credibility. They complained every single time a foul or non-foul didn’t go their way.
– I’ve paid special attention this tournament to players’ feet during inbounds plays. Rarely is the case when a player doesn’t travel on a static inbounds play.
– In two years, can we arrange for Greg Paulus to play Gerry McNamara one-on-one?
– The most under-appreciated guy on the court is the Villanova male cheerleader who stands at halfcourt during timeouts and hoists a co-ed straight up in the air. With fully extended arms he holds her up by her feet. I’ll think twice next time I want to snicker at a male cheerleader. But I’ll probably end up snickering anyway.
– Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson shot a combined 4-32 from the field.
– Question: Can anyone name the last two schools from the same conference that met in the Regional Final? First person to give the correct answers wins an autographed pair of Ben’s bronzed baby shoes.