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March 12, 2008

Big East's first day goes according to plan


OVERVIEW: Providence managed to slow down the tempo, but it never slowed down West Virginia forwards Joe Alexander and Da'Sean Butler. That duo combined for 39 points to carry fifth-seeded West Virginia (23-9) to a 58-53 win over twelfth-seeded Providence (15-16) in a slow-paced, hard-fought affair Wednesday afternoon. Alexander scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and added four assists. Butler finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

THE BIG PICTURE: West Virginia already had wrapped up an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and beating Providence, which sits at 98th in the RPI, won't do much to help the Mountaineers' seeding. But a loss could have dropped them a seed or two in the bracket. WVU coach Bob Huggins was promoting his team and his league and also took a dig at the mid-majors after the game. "I don't know how any team that wins 11 games in this league is not an NCAA Tournament team," he said. "I was a mid-major coach. I was at Akron for five years, and I know how hard it is. But the reality is if it's the best 34 teams. Put them in our league and see how many they win." It may have been the final game at Providence for coach Tim Welsh. Welsh is 160-143 in 10 seasons at Providence but is 59-61 over the past four seasons. He has taken the Friars to the NCAA Tournament twice, in 2001 and '04.

TURNING POINT: Butler scored on back-to-back possessions to turn a 48-47 deficit into a 51-48 lead for the Mountaineers with 3:04 left. The second basket came on a tip-in that was dangerously close to being called offensive goaltending. Providence was called for goaltending on a similar tip-in in the first half. "You know, first half we tip it in, they call offensive goaltending," Welsh said. "Second half, they tip it in and it's a bucket. Those are the things that went against us. In games like this, sometimes it's the breaks."

WHAT'S NEXT: WVU faces fourth-seeded Connecticut on Thursday at 2 p.m. The Huskies won the only regular-season meeting between the teams 79-71 on March 1 despite a 32-point performance from Alexander. The Friars finished with their third losing record in the past four seasons, ending any chance of reaching the NIT.

NOTES: No. 5 seeds improved to 8-1 against No. 12 seeds in the Big East Tournament. .. West Virginia's 58 points were the lowest the Mountaineers have scored in a win over a Big East opponent this season Providence has been eliminated by West Virginia in its past three trips to the Big East Tournament.


OVERVIEW: Seventh-seeded Pittsburgh spent most of its first-round game in the Big East Tournament clinging to a slim lead and had to hold off 10th-seeded Cincinnati in the final minutes Wednesday night. Bearcats guard Deonta Vaughn never allowed the Panthers (23-9) to pull away, hitting a series of tough jumpers on his way to scoring 30 points. "I don't know what else I can ask him to do except drive the bus," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. "I've seen him drive so I'm not going to ask him to do that." The Bearcats (13-18) also turned Pitt center DeJuan Blair into a non-factor, using constant double-teams to limit the star freshman to two points. Sam Young led Pitt with 21 points and four blocks.

THE BIG PICTURE: The Panthers were headed to the NCAA Tournament regardless of the outcome, but the win is important nevertheless. A loss to a team with a losing record could have dropped the Panthers into a dreaded 8-9 first-round matchup. Instead, they are in line for a No. 6 seed. The win also allows point guard Levance Fields more time to shake the rust off his jump shot. Fields went 2-of-9 from the field against the Bearcats and is just 24-of-83 (28.5 percent) since returning from a foot injury that forced him to miss 12 games.

TURNING POINT: Ronald Ramon took a feed from Fields and hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game to put the Panthers up 64-56 with 4:39 to go. Ramon, who is from the Bronx, is one of five Pitt players who played his high school ball in the New York City area.

WHAT'S NEXT: The Panthers will have to get past one of the nation's hottest teams to reach the semifinals. The Panthers face second-seeded Louisville, which has won 15 of its past 17 games, on Thursday at 7 p.m. One of those wins was a 75-73 victory at Pitt on Feb. 24 in the lone regular-season meeting between the teams. Cincinnati's season is over.

NOTES: No. 7 seeds are now 9-4 against No. 10 seeds in the Big East Tournament. Pitt is 6-1 in its past seven Big East Tournament games and 20-8 in its past 28 games in Madison Square Garden. Pitt has reached the Big East tournament title game in six of the past seven seasons. This was the first game in Madison Square Garden for all of Cincinnati's players.


OVERVIEW: It was an ugly win for sixth-seeded Marquette, but nobody can question the effort. The Golden Eagles (23-8) grabbed 56 rebounds three shy of the league-tournament record set by Connecticut in 1996 to the Pirates' 37, and 25 of their boards came on the offensive end. "That's a unique statistic," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "To outrebound them that way is a statement to how (we) played." Of course, you don't reach those kind of numbers without a lot of missed shots. The Eagles (34 percent) and the 11th-seeded Pirates (33 percent) both shot under 35 percent from the field. The Pirates (17-15) were called for 25 fouls and had three players foul out. The Eagles were led by guard Jerel McNeal, who had a game-high 21 points, grabbed nine rebounds and added four assists. McNeal had the play of the tournament so far when he made a spin move in the lane, leaped toward the basket, then ducked underneath the rim as he kissed the ball off the glass to put the Eagles up 54-51 with 6:17 left.

THE BIG PICTURE: Marquette already had wrapped up a spot in the NCAA Tournament field, but a loss here probably would have dropped the Eagles a seed or possibly two. The Eagles look to be in line for a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. The Pirates' NCAA dreams officially are over.

TURNING POINT: Eugene Harvey cut Marquette's lead to one point with a tough layup in traffic with 5:57 left, but reserve guard Maurice Acker answered with a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to put the Golden Eagles up 57-53. The Pirates managed only one more point the rest of the way.

WHAT'S NEXT: The Golden Eagles face third-seeded Notre Dame in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 9 p.m. in a game that could have significant implications in terms of NCAA seeding. The teams split their regular-season meetings, with Marquette cruising 92-66 at home Jan. 12 and Notre Dame winning 86-83 at home Feb. 9. Seton Hall hopes for the NIT bid, which coach Bobby Gonzalez campaigned for in the post-game news conference. The Pirates won seven Big East games but are 101st in the RPI. "Hopefully we showed we are a good team and deserve a look," Gonzalez said. "If Villanova goes to the NCAA Tournament and Syracuse to the NIT, we would be the only team left in the league with a record over .500. I think these two seniors (Brian Laing and Jamar Nutter) deserve to play again, and whoever is out there making the decision, I hope they give us a chance."

NOTES: This is the first time since 1997 that the higher-seeded team won all four first-round games. No. 6 seeds are now 7-3 versus No. 11 seeds in the Big East Tournament. Seton's Hall's 54 points were a season-low. Notre Dame and Marquette have played 110 times -- but never in New York City.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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