by Angelo Spagnolo
(DISCLAIMER: By the way, this picture shows neither me nor my desk, but I'm not far off in either case).
I'm as big of a Pitt fan as I am a Steelers, Penguins, or Pirates fan, so to hear me say, "Thank goodness that Pitt lost" can sound heretical without the proper explanation.
I'm turning 55 on Easter Sunday and in reflecting back over a lifetime of games I've followed involving our local teams, I've come to a definite conclusion that while losing a playoff game or series is bad, (see Braves, Atlanta) losing a championship game or series is the absolute worst (see Red Wings, Detroit)! I can remember seeing the Steelers lose a playoff game one year when had they won, they would've had to go up against Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Rodger Craig in their prime. I wasn't disappointed when the 49ers won it all. They would have beaten the Steelers and anybody else that year. It wasn't a good year to be in a championship game.
During my lifetime, Pittsburgh's sports teams have had an astoundingly great record when it comes to championships, a record any city would envy. Let's take a look at those records since 1954.
The Pirates played in the World Series in 1960 W, 1971 W and 1979 W. Total Record 3-0 1.000%
The Penguins played in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991 W, 1992 W and 2008 L. Total Record
The Steelers played in the SuperBowl seven times; In the years 1974 W, 1975 W, 1978 W, 1979 W (man they were good), 1995 L 2005 W and 2008 W. Their Total Record 6-1 .857%
Pitt last won a concensus national football championship with a win in the Sugar Bowl in 1976 over Georgia. However they also won the Sugar Bowl in 1981 but were not the concensus national champs in the convoluted world of college football. For argument's sake we'll give them another "W" here making their Total Record 2-0 1.000% Their basketball program came as close to winning it all this year than it ever has in the modern era although Pitt won two national basketball championships during ancient times in the '20s (doesn't count because I wasn't born yet).
COMBINED CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD FOR ALL PITTSBURGH TEAMS
So let's get back to Pitt. The Panthers hit their zenith during the last week of the Big East season. In back-to-back games at home, they beat up Marquette and UConn convincingly. They looked ready to make a major run. However, after receiving a double bye in the Big East Tournament, they lost in a very ugly, not to mention disappointing, performance against West Virginia.
The pundits said that, "This was good," so that they could get rest up for the NCAA's. They may have been rested, but they also became very rusty. When this team came out in the first round against East Tennessee State, they played a game that was so horrible that I still can't believe they didn't lose it. The reason why they didn't was that East Tennessee State played and shot even worse, so the Panthers prevailed in spite of themselves.
Their second round matchup against a tough Oklahoma state team showed a revitalized Panthers team that played well enough to move on.
In the infamous "Sweet 16" round that has been Pitt's nemesis for lo how many years, the Panthers stepped up their game even further and beat a scrappy Xavier team to move into the "Elite Eight" round. It was here where the Panthers finally met their Waterloo. They had lost earlier in the year to Villanova on a night when DeJuan Blair had struggled with foul trouble and played only about 20 minutes. But this time around the Panthers were ready and played a very strong game, only to lose to a Villanova team that couldn't miss a foul shot and was red hot from the field as well. It was as fine a game as Villanova had played all year.
When I hear people say that they can't believe how Villanova dribbled the ball through the entire Pitt team and scored with a half second left, you have to tell yourself that they didn't understand what was happening. The Panthers weren't going to foul and give Villanova the win from the free throw stripe because Villanova couldn't miss. If they were going to lose, it was going to come from a last second shot and not from a referee's whistle.
The Panthers knew how much time there was left on the clock, however they couldn't keep Villanova from getting off a shot by a mere half second. Had the Panthers gone on to win this game, they would have played a much slower, worse-shooting, but still dangerous Michigan State team. State, had they defeated North Carolina last night, would have been the first champion ever to beat three number ones en route to the title. Oh well, we don't have to worry about that record.
Above, Carolina's Roy Williams drops Michigan State's Tom Izzo into his "Meat Grinder"
In running headlong into the Carolina meat grinder with a full head of steam and over 60,000 home state fans behind them, the Spartans remarkably never had a chance in this one. The Tarheels were bigger, faster, stronger, better shooters and played better defense. Oh yeah, they rebounded better and turned the ball over less too. Other than that, these two teams were dead even and deserved to be playing for the title.
Not really. Aberrations can occur in the NCAA tournament just as with anything else in life. You would like to think that a team that could lose on the same floor earlier in the season to the same Carolina team wouldn't lose again by 35 points the second time around. The reality is that they could have lost by 50 had Carolina not taken the air out of the ball in the second half. Head Coach Roy Williams (a.k.a. "Huckleberry Hound") didn't want to humiliate his fellow Coach Tom Izzo, he just wanted to comfortably win, which he did.
So again, let's get back to Pitt. I personally feel that Pitt ran into Villanova on a red-hot shooting night and still lost a heart breaker. Had they beaten 'Nova, I feel strongly they would have matched up much better than the smaller Wildcat squad did against Michigan State. So by a whisker, and also by the Grace of God, the Panthers didn't get to the championship game.