Monday, March 17, 2008

Live At The Barbeque

This is what it all trickled down to. After back-to-back-to-back do-or-die games, non-stop live hoops, constant reliance on live scores, updates, and television highlights, a Land Rover-load of buffalo wings and a Hudson River full of cold beer (which allowed the bulge in my stomach to truly balloon), we had arrived at the final and biggest stage.

I hadn't had all that much sleep, but not even a 30-milligram Concerta pill would have made me any more wired. Not even a UPS truck-load of Red Bulls. Heck, not even Bill Gates and some random, slapdash, spoilsport techie from MIT could have had me more wired. For hoop junkies, this is why we wake up in the morning. Colossal events like these are what get us from the bed to the shower.

The No.7-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers arrived at Madison Square Garden looking to defend their castle and avenge last year's tough-to-swallow loss. Last season Aaron Gray, now with the Chicago Bulls, was supposed to turn in a Godzilla-slayer performance and negate Georgetown's 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert. Only the moment came and Gray never showed. Did Gray play that night? I'm not certain if he did or if he didn't. Oh wait, that's right. He was the featured burger of last year's Big East Barbeque, and Hibbert cooked him like a juicy, broiled half-pounder. The past is the past, however, and the future is a blessing. There wasn't a trace of doubt in the Pitt Panthers last night, not a whisper of wonder in any of their minds. They were prepared to pull off a New York Football Giants 2008 Super Bowl-like upset.

This game was about revenge. It was about making up for a football field of lost opportunity. Keith Benjamin, who starred at nearby Mount Vernon High and made an immediate splash on the Rucker Park scene (he's known as "K-Rucker" to some) since his neophyte high school days, said that Pitt owed this victory to a select few. An elite group of ballers consisting of Gray, Chevon Troutman, Carl Krauser and so on, that is.

The Panthers have become instant lynchpins at the Garden these past few years in March, but they've never emerged from the fray. They have appeared in the title game the past two years, but no rock.

Despite shooting a scanty (or just straight up dreadful) 22-for-44 from the charity stripe (numbers even Shaq and Chris Dudley would turn their noses at), Pittsburgh stamped a 74-65 upset win on no.9 Georgetown before 19, 562 at the joint Michael Jordan once referred to as "The Mecca of Basketball." Today the Mecca is more like an unsafe haven for guys with mammoth egos (see Thomas, Isiah) to elicit boos from their own supporters.

But this was an early spring barbeque we had all been waiting for, and a sign of the madness that's to follow. Ronald Ramon, he of the sick mini-fro and Bronx baller resume, cooked the hoyas to the recipe of 17 points and a pair of timely, gut-churning trifectas. Dick Vitale wasn't there to see it (I imagine he was shmooching around Durham, N.C. thrusting himself onto Greg Paulus' package. Let's be honest, Dickie V has the same penchant for a white Duke basketball player than Governer Eliot Spitzer has for Ashley Dupre), but it was certainly "AWESOME BABY!"

With a flurry of baby hooks and shots inside the cup, Hibbert- the league-bound behemoth who hit West Virginia up for a 25-spot in the semis- scored a game-high 17 points while snaring six boards. But the Hoyas did little to counter the forward tandem of Sam Young (16 points, 6 rebounds and fabulous frosh DeJaun Blair. Blair, the 6-foot-7 265-pound homegrown product, turned in a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards as he established position down low.
He's not shy on the Garden floor, as was evidenced when the UHAUL truck of a man went off for 15 and 15 in a 65-64 win over Duke back on Dec.20.

That was essentially his coming-out party, as he registered a top-notch, sublime showing against a top-bracket program (right, Dickie V?). Fitting, because its this Garden floor that Pitt has flourished on. Pittsburgh is 23-8 in MSG since 2000-01. They've ripped through their garden schedule at a 6-0 clip this season.

Last night was no different, the free throw nightmare aside. "We love playing in New York," explained Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who hails from the Boogie Down.

"We have New York guys. We'll do anything we can to play in the Garden. We'll change schedules around. We'll change events around. We want to get our kids back here."

Especially after last night. This was Pitt's turn. As the aforementioned K-Rucker stated, they owed it to a couple soldiers from the past. They owed it to themselves. They needed to get the monkey off their back.

And last night they finally did it. They finally took home that championship they had spent the entire season thinking about, and before some of the same hoop fiends that grew up watching most of them play.

They were witnesses. We were all witnesses, even some kid that drew a striking resemblance to Alfredy Newman (or splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) who sat behind the backboard was a witness, albeit not the prettiest of sights.

This was New York basketball at its finest, two gutter-tough teams battling for supremacy in one of the NCAA's elite conferences. Now the Panthers have propelled themselves into the high-rent district of the NCAA Tournament pool and are slated for a date with scoring machine Robert Jarvis and Oral Roberts ( ) on March 20.

I had a great stay in New York and enjoyed this year's tournament thoroughly. And for all you haters who say New York is home to the worst, most unfriendly people on earth: You must never have heard of Europe.