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March 23, 2008

Pitt's dream over

It was a great late season run, but Pitt's NCAA Tournament ended with a 65-54 loss to Michigan State in Denver on Saturday night.

Michigan State advances to its fifth Sweet 16 in the last seven seasons. The Spartans have also won seven of its last eight second-round NCAA tournament games. Pitt finishes the season 27-10.

Levance Fields was the lone bright spot for the Panthers on offense, as he led the Panthers with 19 points. Sam Young added 15, while DeJuan Blair had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Panthers.

The Spartans were led by Drew Neitzel, who broke out a scoring slump, to score 21 points. Freshman guard Kaylin Lucas chipped in with 19 points, and Goran Suton added 14. Neitzel and Lucas controlled the flow of the game down the stretch, as the Panthers had no answer for them on defense.

This game was all about the perimeter game, even from all the talk leading up to it. Even though both teams are noted for their physical play, whatever team shot and defended the three the best, was going to win. Michigan State was 6-of-10 from three-point range, while the Panthers were an abysmal 2-of-18. It was Pitt's second-worst three-point performance of the season (1-of-11/9.1 percent at Marquette).

Michigan State came out with a great defensive game plan. They forced the Panthers into a lot of tough shots. The Panthers had very few open looks. The ones they did have, they missed. The Spartans took away the inside game as well.

The Panthers held the lead for a few short moments of the game. Pitt grabbed a 44-42 lead with 9:25 left, and it would ultimately be the last lead they would have.

Michigan State scored the first six points of the second half. Pitt didn't score for the first five minutes of the second half. Blair got Pitt's first two buckets of the half. Blair connected on just two of his first nine shots before those two buckets. Pitt trailed 40-30, then went on a 14-2 run, to grab a 44-42 lead on Sam Young's driving layup. Michigan State regained the lead, and held it from there on.

Neitzel was the catalyst in regaining the lead for the Spartans. He had nine points in the first half, and was 3-of-4 from the field in the first half. Ronald Ramon spent all his energy defending him. He finished 1-for-9 from the field, and missed his first eight shots. He defended Neitzel well, to start the second half. Neitzel started the second half going 0-for-5. His first eight points of the half came on two three-pointers and a jumper, all in a row, as Michigan State went up 52-47.

While the Panthers had one of its worst performances from three-point range, they had their best performance from the free throw line. The Panthers finished 18-of-19 from the free throw line (94.7 percent).

The Panthers trailed by two at the end of the first half, despite the Spartans turning the ball over eight times. Pitt turned it over just three times, but only shot 29 percent (9-of-31) in the first half.

The first half got off to a slow start. The game was scoreless for the first two and a half minutes, before Michigan State scored the game's first two points. Michigan State jumped out to a 9-4 lead. Pitt then went on an 8-0 run, highlighted by a Sam Young windmill dunk. The dunk gave the Panthers their first lead of the game at 10-9.

The Spartans built as much as a five-point lead with just under four minutes left in the half Fields hit a three-pointer to bring the Panthers to within 26-24. Fields led the Panthers with 11 points in the first half. In addition to his three-pointer, he pushed two transition buckets. With less than 10 seconds left in the half, Fields stole in an inbound pass, and took it all the way in for a layup, tying the game at 28-28. Michigan State pushed the ball back up court for a layup, regaining the lead 30-28 at the half.

NOTES - This marks the last game for seniors Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin. Ramon finishes his career with 1,096 career points, 30th on Pitt's all-time scoring list. He finishes third all-time, behind Jason Matthews (259; 1987-91) and Sean Miller (239; 1987-92) with 233 career three-pointers. He finishes with the fifth-highest three-point percentage in school history (233-of-590, 39.4%). Ramon played in 135 career games. Only Jaron Brown (137) and Julius Page (136) played in more. Benjamin finished with 123 career games played, one of 11 players in school history with at least 123 career games played.

Tony Greco can be contacted at pittpath@hotmail.com..

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