Sloppy Pitt survives ETSU, 72-62

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DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—Pittsburgh intends to make history in this year’s NCAA tournament. The Panthers almost did in their first game.

Playing as a No. 1 seed for the first time but hardly looking the part, Pitt overcame a sloppy performance and a frightful 40 minutes from No. 16 seed East Tennessee State to advance with a 72-62 win on Friday in the East Regional.

Pitt’s massive center DeJuan Blair bullied his way inside for 27 points and 16 rebounds as the Panthers (29-4) managed to extend their season, which with a little more than four minutes left was in jeopardy of ending sooner than they ever imagined.

“We survived,” Blair said.

Barely.

ETSU, a small college tucked in the rolling hills of northeast Tennessee, nearly pulled off the shocker of shockers.

A No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1.

“We had them,” said senior guard Kevin Tiggs. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

Pittsburgh, trying to shake its reputation as an underachiever this time of year, will play eighth-seeded Oklahoma State, a 75-77 winner over ninth-seeded Tennessee, in Sunday’s second round.

The Panthers had better improve if they want go much further. They made 18 turnovers, struggled with ETSU’s end-to-end press and hardly looked like a squad picked by many to win its first title.

“Having a tough game like that at the beginning keeps you on your toes,” said Panthers senior forward Sam Young. “Every game gets harder and harder.”

Tiggs scored 21 for the Buccaneers (23-11), who shot just 31 percent and missed 12 free throws but still had a chance to become the first bottom seed to win a first-round game.

Since the NCAA tournament field expanded to the 64-team format in 1985, No. 16s are a collective 0-for-100 in NCAA opening-round action—a flawless quarter century.

But there have been plenty of close calls: Princeton’s 50-49 loss to Georgetown in 1989; ETSU’s 72-71 loss to Oklahoma that same year; Murray State’s 75-71 loss in overtime to Michigan State in 1990; and Western Carolina’s 73-71 loss to Purdue in 1996. Despite this 10-point differential, go ahead and add this one to the list.

Pittsburgh’s first excursion lugging around the top-seed target was a very bumpy ride.

When Buccaneers guard Courtney Pigram drained a 3-pointer with 4:27 left, ETSU was within 59-57 and the crowd inside the University of Dayton Arena— comprised of fans from Tennessee, Oklahoma State along with some locals who spent the afternoon cheering updates from the hometown Flyers’ game—erupted at the possibility of seeing college hoops history.

Even the Panthers thought it was possible.

“That crossed my mind yesterday, not just today,” Blair said. “Every team in this tournament is a good team.”

With the pressure on, Pittsburgh responded. Blair made sure of it.

The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder scored on a three-point play to give the Panthers a five-point cushion that felt like 20, and after Tiggs made two free throws to bring ETSU within 62-59, Blair lobbed a pass up the floor to point guard Levance Fields. Pitt’s leader, who has been bothered by a groin injury the past few weeks and is not moving as well as usual, was able to outrace two ETSU defenders for a left-handed layup.

The Bucs missed a free throw and Pitt capitalized as Ashton Gibbs hit a long 3-pointer and celebrated the big bucket by pounding his fist against his chest.

Tiggs, who was just 6-of-21 from the floor, made a layup to get it to 67-61 with 1:05 left, but ETSU couldn’t get any closer as the Panthers made their free throws and booked a date with the Cowboys, who never imagined not facing the Big East brutes.

“No question Pitt is one of the great teams in the country,” OSU coach Travis Ford said. “They have a very experienced team, and they’re very big. We’ve played against (Oklahoma’s) Blake Griffin, but they seem to have two or three Blake Griffins on their team. We’re going to have to figure something out in the next few days.”

The Bucs may have given Ford some hope.

It was the 161st win for Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, tying him with North Carolina State’s Everett Case (1947-52) for the best start in six seasons. Dixon’s teams are known for their tough, physical style and something else not as flattering: an inability to get deep in the tournament.

Despite a succession of 20-win seasons and a few Big East titles, the Panthers haven’t been able to advance past the round of 16. The can’t-win-the-big-one stigma has stung Pitt’s program and perhaps unfairly kept it from being grouped with North Carolina, Kansas, Connecticut and others.

The Panthers still have a chance to change their image after beating a team much better than its bracket slot.

“There’s no way this is a No. 16 seed,” Dixon said of ETSU. “I watched them play.”

Understandably, the Bucs dejectedly left the floor, their dreams crushed by some missed shots and unforced errors.

“We’re really disappointed, because we felt we could win,” coach Murry Bartow said. “We came here to win. We didn’t come here to play a close game.”

Moments after his players were dismissed from the news conference, Bartow was asked if a No. 16 will ever drop a No. 1.

“It will happen,” he said. “It almost happened today.”

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 E. Tennessee St.
Kevin Tiggs Kevin Tiggs
6-21,  21 Pts
2 Rebs, 4 Assists
 Pittsburgh
DeJuan Blair DeJuan Blair
10-17,  27 Pts
16 Rebs, 3 Assists

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Points
Rebounds
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Friday, Mar 20