Pitt needed a win over visiting Villanova (21-10, 9-9) Saturday to take the Big East Championship outright as Notre Dame beat Connecticut earlier in the day. If Pitt would have lost, the Irish would have been co-champions and claimed the number-one seed in next week’s Big East Tournament due to the tiebreaker of winning head-to-head.
The Panthers (27-4, 14-3) took care of business by pulling away in the second half and beating the Wildcats 60-50 in front of a senior-day raucous crowd of 12,843 at the Petersen Events Center. Pitt probably secured a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament as well with the win.
“I’m happy for our seniors and very excited for our whole team to end this season with an outright Big East Championship on senior night,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “Nobody has ever won a conference with 11 NCAA Tournament teams in it. To accomplish that, you have to beat a lot of very good teams.”
Villanova kept it close by playing the same slow-tempo style that Notre Dame did at Pitt last month. The Panthers were never able to pull away from the Irish in that loss. They were able to pull away from the Wildcats in this decisive win.
Six minutes into the second half, Pitt found itself down three points but the senior class, who had struggled the entire game, sparked a break-out and the Panthers never looked back.
Senior Gary McGhee pulled down and offensive rebound and scored a putback to pull Pitt to within one point. He blocked a shot on the other end on the ensuing possession and Gilbert Brown pulled down the loose ball and threw an outlet pass to Ashton Gibbs who hit a 12-footer to give Pitt a one-point lead.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright credited that offensive rebound and another one McGhee pulled down later in the second half as one of the keys to Pitt’s win.
“Those two offensive rebounds by McGhee in the second half after two good defensive possessions by us were back-breakers, but that’s the little things great teams do and what Pitt does,” Wright said. “I want to beat their ass every time we play them but we have great respect for their program and I congratulate them for having some pressure to have to win today and winning the Big East Championship.”
Senior Gilbert Brown then hit a three-pointer to give the Panthers a four-point lead and spark a 12-2 run and they never looked back. It was also Brown’s one-thousandth career point at Pitt.
“I thought I would have an opportunity to knock down a three, so as soon as I saw their defense scrambled up, I knew I had a shot,” Brown said. “I knew if I hit that, it would be a big shot and help us change the momentum, plus winning the Big East Championship on top of it– this was a big day for me.”
Pitt iced the game at the free throw line as Villanova tried to foul to steal possessions late in the game. In the last four minutes, the Panthers shot 15-16 at the free throw line and shot 23 for 26 overall.
Brad Wanamaker joined the other two seniors in celebrating the outright conference championship after the game but was quick to state that there is still a lot of basketball to be played this season.
“We’re happy but this is only one checkmark on our checklist,” Wanamaker said. “We only focused on winning this game,” Wanamaker said. “We didn’t care about Notre Dame.”
Pitt will now wait the outcome of the final games in the Big East season this weekend to see who they will play on Thursday in the Big East Championship. The Panthers along with Notre Dame, Syracuse,
“We’ll enjoy this championship tonight, but its not over,” Dixon said. “Whoever we play in the [Big East]will be good.”
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