It's Fields's day as Pittsburgh thwarts Xavier
The Sweet 16 had always been a stumbling point.
Ever since the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 64 teams, Pittsburgh had never gone beyond the regional semifinals. Oh, sure, the Panthers reached the Elite Eight in 1974, but that's when the tourney featured 32 teams. Pitt made it to the Final Four in 1941, when only eight teams were invited, so March Madness wasn't quite the same then.
Still, when you've reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last eight seasons, as the Panthers have, it somehow can get twisted into a negative, especially when you fail to advance to the Elite Eight, as the Panthers had. Until last night, that is.
Senior guard Levance Fields, Pittsburgh's 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pound fireplug of a floor general, propelled the top-seeded Panthers (31-4) to the Elite Eight by converting a pair of clutch baskets in the final minute of a 60-55 East Regional triumph over fourth-seeded Xavier at TD Banknorth Garden.
Fields, who wound up with 14 points and six assists, put the Panthers ahead to stay, 55-54, when he nailed a fearless 3-pointer from the top of the key with 50.9 seconds left. Fields's haymaker was so deep it seemed as though he let it fly from the outer reaches of some far-flung onion field. Which may have caused CBS's Bill Raftery to exclaim from his courtside perch: "Onions!"
"I thought the shot Levance Fields hit says it all about a senior point guard," said Xavier coach Sean Miller, a 1992 Pitt graduate.
"They pushed us around for the first half, but we responded in the second half, as we usually do," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who watched his team rebound from a 37-29 halftime deficit in which they were dominated on the boards, 23-16, by holding Xavier to 24 percent shooting (7 for 29) in the second half and outrebounding the Musketeers, 28-21, to battle to a draw on the boards (44-44).
"We're very proud of our guys how they responded," Dixon said. "It's a first half that didn't go our way. We had guys make big plays. I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots. He's made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him. And that's all that matters."
After Fields knocked down his trey over the outstretched hands of Dante Jackson, he followed by corralling B.J. Raymond's key-top turnover and converting it into an easy breakaway basket that made it 57-54 with 23.9 seconds left.
"First off, I do have the confidence, but especially to have my coach and my teammates believe in me down the stretch," said Fields, who sat on the postgame dais flanked by senior forward Sam Young (team-high 19 points) and bullish sophomore power forward DeJuan Blair, who struggled in the first half (2 points, four rebounds), but wound up recording his 20th double-double of the season (and 34th of his career) with 10 points and 17 rebounds.
"I've got two stars on each side of me right here who could step up in that situation," Fields said. "But it's a special feeling."
In the first half, the Musketeers used their length and athleticism to score on numerous second shots and kickouts to forge an 8-point lead at intermission, but the Panthers went on a 9-0 run in the second half led by Blair and Young, who had 4 points apiece in that stretch.
Fields capped the run when he hit the first of two foul attempts to give Pitt a 38-37 lead, its first since 19-18.
Derrick Brown (14 points, nine rebounds) hit a turnaround jumper to give Xavier a 39-38 lead before Young wrested it away by hitting a pair of foul shots to give Pitt a 40-39 lead with 13:07 to go. After Raymond converted a layup to give Xavier at 41-40 lead with 12:05 left, both teams proceeded to engage in a rock fight, going a combined 0 for 9 from the field before Jackson got one to fall, snapping a 4:35 drought for the Musketeers.
Trailing by 3, Gilbert Brown pulled Pitt within 43-42 with a pair of free throws with 8:41 left, but it wasn't until Blair converted a putback with 8:30 left that the Panthers snapped their shooting skein of 7:32.
Gilbert Brown followed with a driving layup to give Pitt a 46-45 lead that that would seesaw before the Musketeers surged to a 54-52 lead on Jackson's layup with 1:49 left.
Fields then delivered the Panthers to the Elite Eight with his last-minute heroics. With two seconds left, Fields sprinted over to Dixon and shared a hugged with his coach.
"He was still mad, telling me the game wasn't over," Fields said. "I was excited for Coach. As good as he's been for this university and picking up where Coach [Ben] Howland left off . . . the biggest knock has been not a Final Four appearance and not getting past the Sweet 16. So this is just a step towards that. And I just wanted to embrace him because he deserves it."
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.