PITTSBURGH - March 28, 2009 Scottie Reynolds took an inbounds pass with five seconds left and drove past several Pitt defenders to score the game-winning layup for Villanova in a 78-76 victory over the Panthers that propelled the Wildcats to the Final Four.
That shot also ended the college careers of All-Americans Sam Young and DeJuan Blair as well as team leader Levance Fields and starter Tyrell Biggs. It was also supposed to mean the end, at least temporarily, of Pitt's amazing run under Jamie Dixon.
The Panthers were picked to finish ninth in the Big East in the preseason coaches' poll.
Sunday, Reynolds brought his Wildcats, who were picked first in that poll, to Pittsburgh. He and Villanova left town with the same thing every team ranked in the top-5 that has entered the Petersen Events Center during its nine years of existence has - a loss.
Pitt defeated Villanova less than a year after its disappointing Elite 8 loss, 70-65, with a team that on the surface appears nothing like its 2008-2009 team.
In doing so, the Panthers improved to 21-6 overall and 10-4 in the Big East. It marks the ninth consecutive season Pitt has won at least 20 games overall and 10 conference games. Seven of those seasons have come with Dixon at the helm.
Pitt's success this season surprised everyone but those in the Panthers' locker room. Following the victory, Jermaine Dixon discussed how winning the Big East title has been a goal for the squad since the start of the season and that now people are starting to take that belief more seriously.
And boy are they ever.
Big East front runner Syracuse, which has a two-game lead over Pittsburgh, still must play Villanova and travel to Louisville. The Panthers, currently tied for third, close the season with road games at Notre Dame and St. John's before hosting Providence and Rutgers.
Despite returning just Jermaine Dixon from its starting lineup last year, it's no coincidence the Panthers are in the hunt as Villanova coach Jay Wright pointed out Sunday.
"I think [Jamie Dixon] did a good job with these guys last year, preparing them for this season" Wright said. "This isn't surprising. Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker, Nasir Robinson - they were all in last year at crucial times. Gilbert Brown has been in the program for awhile.
"Jamie did a great job of having them ready for when it was their turn."
Dixon, Brown, Wanamaker and Gibbs combined to play 76 minutes in that loss to Villanova last season, and both Robinson and McGhee saw time during the NCAA tournament despite big names like Young, Blair and Fields taking all the headlines.
Even Sunday, with just one senior (Dixon) on the roster, Jamie Dixon was preparing his team for the future.
When Ashton Gibbs, the most reliable free throw shooter on the team, lost his touch late in the game, Pitt got the ball to Travon Woodall. The freshman, who is shooting just 64 percent from the free throw line this season, nailed four straight from the charity stripe in the final 12 seconds to ice the game.
"He was really good out there," Jamie Dixon said regarding Woodall. "In the second half, we had him in there for most of the half. He was really good, and he controlled tempo out there by defending. He's a freshman, and he's been getting better every game."
Getting better every game seems to be a trend this year in Pittsburgh. Save a midseason slump during which Jermaine Dixon was injured, the Panthers have improved as much as anyone in the NCAA since struggling to beat Wofford at home in their opener.
"We continue to improve and get better," Jamie Dixon said. "I told our guys afterward that no team that I can think of has improved as much as we have in the country from November to February, but we still have plenty of room to improve."
With Dixon at the helm, don't expect the trend of 20-win seasons to end any time soon. Now if he can just perfect the next step, winning in March.
Mike Boytim can be reached at email@example.com or 946-7521.