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Dan Shaughnessy

Blair gave Musketeers bum's rush

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2009
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Sometimes in sports it's about body parts.

Kevin McHale was especially good in the paint because he has unusually long arms. An imposing 6 feet 10 inches, McHale has the wingspan of someone well over 7 feet tall. This was useful for his low-post game.

Michael Jordan and Julius Erving are gifted with enormous hands. Same with Pedro Martínez. This is an advantage in any sport in which you toss a spheroid. The bigger the hands, the smaller the ball. Makes everything easier. Try shooting the smaller women's basketball sometime and notice how much better you are from 3-point range.

Pittsburgh center/forward DeJuan Blair, who scored 10 points and had 17 rebounds in a 60-55 East Regional semifinal win over Xavier last night, is a member of the random gene club. His upside is his backside. One of his biggest assets is his . . . well, you know.

Blair is 6-7, weighs 265 pounds (just like Rich Garces was 235 pounds), and grew up in Pittsburgh, just 600 yards from the Panthers' home court. We can only wonder how he would have done at the NFL Combine. Anybody remember Sam Clancy? He went from the Pitt frontcourt (1978-81) to a 10-year NFL career as a defensive lineman. Clancy was a widebody who could elevate. Just like Blair.

There's no attempt to hide Blair's trunk. It's a big part of the Pitt game plan. It's also a topic of conversation - like Bette Davis's eyes and Jerome Bettis's thighs. Yesterday's New York Times offered a full-blown sports cover story on the sophomore's hind quarters.

Hub college hoop fans got a chance to see for themselves when the big fella went to work against the Musketeers in the kickoff game of this weekend's hoop-palooza at the generically enhanced TD Banknorth Garden.

Blair did not have a good night shooting. He made only 5 of 16 shots from the floor. But he had 17 rebounds, kept the ball alive with a huge tip in crunch time, and enabled half-pint senior Levance Fields to win the game with a ridiculous trey and a steal-and-score in the final minute.

"Hats off to the team and the coach and the city for getting past the Sweet 16," said Blair.

Amen. Top-seeded Pitt (31-4) finally gets over the hump and makes it to the Elite Eight for the first time in the history of the 64-team tournament. Tomorrow, the Panthers will play Villanova for the right to go to the Final Four next weekend in Detroit.

It was looking bleak for Blair and friends at halftime. They trailed by 8 points and there was the usual talk about their inability to advance beyond the Sweet 16.

"They were the most physical team we played all year," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. "They pushed us around."

Blair's first half typified that of his team. He made an early putback and came up from behind to block the shot of 7-foot Kenny Frease, but Pitt's big man often found himself out of position and lagging behind as the Five Musketeers raced into the lead. Blair didn't get many touches and had his shot blocked a couple of times. On offense, he consistently worked himself too far under the basket. He had an embarrassing 2 points at the half.

"The coaches stayed behind me and didn't let me get down on myself," Blair said.

"They talked to me in the locker room and kept me motivated. In the second half, I found a way to score for the team and started rebounding."

Parked in the lane, Blair had 8 points and a whopping 13 rebounds in the second half.

He scored twice in the first three minutes after intermission, including a nifty lefthanded spin shot off the glass. It was part of Pitt's 9-0 run, which erased the Xavier lead.

Pitt trailed by 1 point when Blair returned from a breather with 11 minutes left. He inhaled every rebound the rest of the way. There were some hard picks out top as well - including a screen he set before Fields's shocking rainbow three (that put the Panthers on top for good) with 50.9 seconds remaining.

It was a game with little flow or artistry. Both teams had trouble shooting at the Garden rims. Must have been the nerves of playing on the parquet (whoops, I forgot, the NCAA removed the Celtics court for the weekend).

In the end, Pittsburgh advanced because Fields played fearlessly and Blair could not be moved out of the paint.

Finally members of the Elite Eight, Blair sat with Fields and senior Sam Young (19 points) in the postgame interview room.

"Our strategy at the end was to give Levance the ball," said Blair. "He called me up for a screen and we played off that. When the three of us are clicking, it's tough for us to be beat."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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