The Pittsburgh Panthers' basketball season ended Saturday night, but it wasn't due to a lack of talent or effort.
Pittsburgh played its physical style, shot nearly 50 percent from the field, stayed out of serious foul trouble and grabbed its fair share of rebounds.
It just ran into an opponent that played better that given night.
Villanova made 22-of-23 free throws and had four players score in double figures including Scottie Reynolds, who dribbled the length of the court and hit a runner with half a second to play that sent the Panthers home from the Big Dance just before the grand finale of the Final Four.
If Pittsburgh had lost to East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State or Xavier it could have been argued the Panthers did not quite show the effort needed to move on, but unlike the first three rounds, Pittsburgh hustled toward every loose ball and stretched out for each rebound Saturday. It just wasn't enough.
Perhaps Pittsburgh should have gotten the ball to DeJuan Blair more often. The Panthers' big man was 9-for-9 from the field while the combination of Levance Fields, Jermaine Dixon and Tyrell Biggs went just 3-for-16.
While Sam Young was incredible, going 10-for-17 from the field with 28 points, it was Blair who faced a mismatch late in the game as Villanova's Dante Cunningham sat with foul trouble.
Making the loss even tougher to handle for Pittsburgh fans is that there will be no encore performance from Young, Fields, Biggs and possibly Blair. For every big shot Fields made during the NCAA Tournament and throughout his career, the one he'll likely remember the most is his 65-foot heave as time expired that bounced off the center of the backboard.
Fields can take solace in the fact he led the Panthers to heights they've never reached before during his senior season.
Pittsburgh had plenty of firsts this season. It became the nation's No. 1 team in both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN polls twice, defeated the nation's No. 1 team twice, beat a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament (Xavier) and made it to the Elite Eight for the first time since before he or any of his teammates were born.
Now that Fields, his fellow seniors and maybe Blair, if he declares for the NBA draft, have moved on after leaving their stamp on the Pittsburgh program, plenty of questions surround the team's future.
Arguably the turning point in Saturday's loss came when Pittsburgh led, 67-63, with 2:56 remaining and Dixon turned the ball over and fouled Dwayne Anderson as Anderson laid in a basket. Anderson hit the free throw and a four-point lead with the ball turned into a one-point advantage.
Dixon is the only starter who is a definite to return next season and struggled with the press, not only in Saturday's game but earlier in the tournament against East Tennessee State.
Ashton Gibbs, a probable starter next season, missed all three of his shots and had a turnover while playing just 6 minutes but has shown the ability to be a quality shooter in earlier games this season.
Gilbert Brown will also return for Pittsburgh. Brown had a solid game Saturday and has starting experience from last season which should encourage Pittsburgh faithful.
If Blair returns, which despite his nation accolades is a definite possibility due to his ties to the Pittsburgh area, the Panthers will once again be a sure-thing NCAA Tournament qualifier and a trip to the Sweet 16 would not be out of the question.
However, a lineup of Gibbs, Dixon, Brad Wanamaker, Brown and Gary McGhee could have big problems facing a tough Big East schedule and may be lucky to be even a bubble team come March despite a solid group of incoming freshmen.
A Blair return would mean Pittsburgh can rebuild with him on the court, thus extending its window of opportunity as a Big East power, but if Blair opts to leave that window will slam shut, at least for the time being.
Michael Boytim can be reached at 946-7521 or at email@example.com