NEW YORK (AP)—Antonio Graves and the Pittsburgh Panthers are getting used to long stays in New York City in March and playing for the Big East championship.
Graves scored 10 of his 23 points during Pittsburgh’s 20-2 run to start the second half, and the 13th-ranked Panthers advanced to the title game for the sixth time in seven years with a 65-59 victory over No. 12 Louisville on Friday night.
“I definitely believe that Madison Square Garden, the Big East tournament, is destined for us,” Graves said. “And we’ve been able to take advantage of treating it as our home court.”
Pittsburgh (27-6), which last won the title in 2003, is playing in the championship for the second time in Jamie Dixon’s three seasons as coach. The third-seeded Panthers advanced to the final Saturday against top-seeded Georgetown (25-6), which edged Notre Dame 84-82 in the earlier game.
The teams split their two regular-season matchups, with each winning on their home court.
“I’ll have film to watch as soon as I get back to the inn,” Dixon said. “I know our guys are excited, but we’ll be ready to go.”
Mike Cook added 13 points and eight rebounds for Pittsburgh, which fell behind by 11 points at halftime after leading by as much as six early on.
“I was happy for the way we responded, especially in the second half,” Dixon said. “Being in an 11-point halftime deficit shows the character of our guys.”
Terrence Williams had 18 points and seven rebounds, and Earl Clark added 12 rebounds for second-seeded Louisville (23-9). Rick Pitino’s Cardinals were looking for their first Big East final appearance since joining the conference two years ago.
“We sort of ran out of gas in the second half,” Pitino said. “And Pittsburgh made big shots.”
Louisville led 37-26 at halftime, but saw a big lead disappear for the second straight game. After blowing a 17-point advantage against West Virginia before winning in double overtime Thursday night, the Cardinals’ 11-point halftime lead slipped away quickly against the Panthers.
“In the second half, when they went to zone, we didn’t attack the zone as ferociously,” said Pitino, who didn’t bring any players to the postgame media conference. “You have to attack the zone. You can’t just passively throw it around the perimeter and play beat the clock.”
Pittsburgh was 0-for-6 from 3-point range in the first half, but Graves came out firing after the break. He coolly sank a 3 on the Panthers’ first possession and followed with another on their next, cutting the deficit to 37-32.
After Clark’s layup at 18:37 made it 39-34, the Panthers scored the next 12 points. Graves capped the big run by making one of two free throws with 14:32 left to give Pittsburgh a 46-39 lead. The senior guard finished 7-of-10 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range.
“Our offense is great,” Graves said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can help me get open looks.”
Pittsburgh wouldn’t relinquish the lead, although Louisville made it close.
Edgar Sosa, the Cardinals’ star against the Mountaineers, made a 3 with 6:53 left to make it a one-point game at 52-51. Pittsburgh center Aaron Gray, who played in foul trouble most of the game, had a chance to increase the lead, but missed three straight free throws. Levance Fields made one of two foul shots with 3:26 left, and Graves made another 3—his fourth of the game—to make it 56-51 with 2:44 remaining.
Pittsburgh got the lead back up to six on two free throws by Gray with 56.4 seconds left, but Williams’ 3-pointer cut it to 59-56 with 40.9 seconds remaining. After two free throws by Levon Kendall, Sosa hit a 3 to make it 61-59 with 21.7 seconds left.
Pitino was unhappy with the earlier effort by Sosa, a freshman, and sat him for over 11 minutes in the second half.
“I didn’t think he was playing too well,” Pitino said. “He was not making other people better.”
After Sosa’s 3, Graves made two more three throws a second later and then sealed it with an emphatic dunk with less than a second left.
Pittsburgh made just 20 of its 31 free throws, but Louisville made only four trips to the foul line.
The Cardinals were left to ponder their NCAA tournament situation. When asked if he had a guess as to what seed he thought his team would get, Pitino bristled.
“Next question,” he said curtly. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be coaching. I really wouldn’t be here.”
When someone suggested they might be a six or seven seed, Pitino fired back: “We’re going to be a six or seven, guys, so write that down.”