NEW YORK -- Either DeJuan Blair or Hasheem Thabeet?
WVU 74, Pitt 60
Pittsburgh perhaps played one of its ugliest games this season Thursday night, losing 74-60 to seventh-seeded West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. It was the Panthers' first game after receiving a double-bye as the Tourney's No. 2 seed.
Even though an upset is always possible, Pitt already had beaten West Virginia twice this season, in Morgantown and the Petersen Events Center, by comfortable margins. And the Panthers were 23-8 at Madison Square Garden since the 2000-01 season, won 9 of their last 11 Big East Tournament games and hadn't lost an opening game at the Garden since 2005.
"It's hard to beat a team three times,'' Pitt sophomore center DeJuan Blair said. "We weren't prepared, and the foul trouble … We just didn't grind it out like we usually do. We didn't shoot that well. We got out-rebounded.
"We're going to keep this as motivation. I hate to feel like this. I felt like this after Providence. But hopefully we bounce back in the NCAA Tournament, wherever they put us.''
Senior forward Sam Young's 15 points and Blair's 14 were Pitt's only double-figure scoring efforts, but the Panthers might not have to worry about losing another key number. Pitt could maintain a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, because Oklahoma lost to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tourney Thursday. The NCAA field will be determined Sunday night.
Even though Blair said he'd rather lose early in the Big East Tournament than in the NCAA event, that's little consolation now.
"We weren't coached well, (and) we weren't prepared well for some things,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We just got outplayed in every area. We have beaten them twice this year, both were tough games, but they really outplayed us. We realize that we got what we deserved.''
Realizing that Pitt got outplayed in every area of the game isn't a stretch. West Virginia shot better from 3-point range, as Pitt was 0-for-8. WVU made 24 of 27 free throws, and Pitt made 14 of 19. The Mountaineers also out-rebounded Pitt, 33-27. And Alex Ruoff (18), Devin Ebanks (20) and Da'Sean Butler (16), all out-scored the Panthers' players.
"It's hard to play well every game,'' Dixon said. "It's easy to say and hard to do. It's not for a lack of desire or effort. We got in some foul trouble and had to change our rotation around.''
Both Blair and Wanamaker fouled out. Blair played just 18 minutes. West Virginia switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense in the second half, and that had a lot to do with Pitt struggling from the field.
"They were trying to come down on me a lot,'' Blair said. "I wasn't making shots. We weren't shooting great shots. The 1-3-1 kind of killed us, I think.''
That was no coincidence.
"I thought they were too physical, and that's why we went to the 1-3-1,'' WVU coach Bob Huggins said. "The first two games, we were in both games, but (Pitt) just threw it inside to their bigs, and we had a hard time.
"We went to 1-3-1 to try to keep them from getting the ball inside, and as you saw they didn't get the ball inside too much.''
Like the rest of the game, Blair spent most of the first half watching from the bench, and Dixon used 10 players in the first half. Blair picked up his second foul of the game with just 4:01 elapsed in the first half. He shuffled over to take a charge on Alex Ruoff, but was instead called for a block. This came after Blair picked up his first foul 53 seconds into the game.
Dixon subbed Blair out of the game for Gilbert Brown, and West Virginia immediately made a run, mixing inside, outside and transition play. Ruoff hit a jumper and a lay-up on a fast break, and Butler and Ebanks both got the ball in close enough proximity to the basket to draw fouls and hit free throws.
Butler hit from outside, too, making WVU's first 3-pointer of the game with 9:02 left in the first half, and Kevin Jones followed up with a jumper at the 8:30 mark. At that point, West Virginia led 24-18, and had out-scored Pitt 20-9 since Blair left the game.
On the next play, though, Fields hit Sam Young with an alley-oop dunk, a play that prompted an 8-2 run for the Panthers. Blair never returned in the first half, scoring five points and committing two fouls in four minutes. Tyrell Biggs ended up with the most fouls in the first half, though, with three.
But West Virginia actually committed more fouls than Pitt in the first half, 10-9, and Butler was tagged for his third in the final two minutes.
West Virginia grabbed a 36-34 lead when John Flowers tipped in an Ebanks miss. The Mountaineers shot 11-for-28 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point range, but made 13 of 13 free throws. Pitt shot 15-for-29 from the field, but made just 4 of 8 from the line.
Blair started the second half in the game, but that didn't seem to help much at first. West Virginia started the second half on a 7-2 run, capped by an Ebanks dunk over Jermaine Dixon. Pitt labored through the early first half, missing lay-up opportunities and struggling to find a shooting touch, while West Virginia gained a 53-45 lead at the 12-minute mark despite committing six team fouls.
Blair committed the foul that proved the most costly. With more than 11 minutes remaining, Blair failed to get an offensive rebound, and while running back on defense brushed a forearm across Ruoff's chest. Referee Jim Burr caught it and called Blair for a technical. Ruoff hit the two free throws, and West Virginia extended its lead to 61-49 with nine minutes to play.
Pitt never really challenged the rest of the way.
"The next couple days, you're going to feel down, but you know this is motivation,'' Blair said. "This is a little setback for us, but we need to take steps forward and keep working hard. Everything's going to be all right for us.''
As long as Pitt goes on a long run in the NCAA Tournament.
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