As far as The Basketball Tournament was concerned, Thursday night’s game was a matchup between No. 2 seed Boeheim’s Army and No. 3 seed Untouchables. However, in the minds of the players and the rowdy fans at Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Center, it was Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh, another edition of a classic rivalry.
Pitt and Syracuse, as the two normally do, delivered an entertaining game, a 91-84 win by the Untouchables, who were led by a team-high 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting from streaky lefty Jermaine Dixon. Ricky Harris, a former UMass guard and friend of Dixon, added 16 points.
For Syracuse, Friends Central High School alumnus and NBA veteran Hakim Warrick was the star attraction. Warrick posted 14 points and two crowd-pleasing dunks. Syracuse had another player from the Philadelphia area in center Rick Jackson. If the name rings a bell, it may be because of his partnership at both Syracuse and Neumann-Goretti High School with point guard Scoop Jardine. The January 2006 contest between Episcopal Academy, led by future NBA players Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, and Neumann-Goretti, headed by Jackson and Jardine, is one of the better Philadelphia high school basketball games in recent memory.
Unsurprisingly, the key for the Untouchables was their smooth ball movement and shooting against Boeheim’s Army's vaunted 2-3 zone. The Untouchables held a substantial edge from three-point territory, making 13 of 31 attempts, compared to 6 of 19 for the 'Cuse contingent. After nailing one of his four three-balls to give the Untouchables a 40-28 lead, Dixon leaned over to the Boeheim’s Army bench and exchanged a few words.
James Southerland, a “ringer” for Syracuse brought in for this game, said, “There were some words here and there. But it’s a rivalry, so that’s how it’s going to be.”
Dixon said the level of intensity is “pretty much the same [as playing in the Big East]. We knew when we were playing them what kind of matchup it was going to be — physical. We knew they were going to sit in the zone, we knew what we were going to do. But ultimately, we were ready to win.”
The addition of Southerland and Donte Greene as ringers appeared to put a greater burden on coach Ryan Blackwell, who had to allocate minutes to 11 players. Pitt suited up only eight.
“We just struggled to find the best five-guy rotation throughout the game,” Boeheim’s Army guard Brandon Triche said.
The Untouchables had none of the same issues gelling as a unit. Dixon and coach Brandon Driver studied film and organized a pregame walkthrough to refresh their memories about how to attack the Boeheim’s Army zone. Even the players who didn’t share the court during college looked like they played together before.
“Team chemistry was big,” Harris said. “You add a big-name guy to your team, nine times out of 10, that’ll hurt you because they want to go out and show how good they are instead of playing the right way.”
Along with the desire to beat their rivals, personal pride was a major motivator for the The Untouchables.
“We’re competitive guys, we’ve always been underdogs our whole lives, and we want to show people that we can still play basketball five, six years out of college,” Harris said, “and I think we’re starting to bring our names back to light and proving ourselves again.”
LeVance Fields, the 5-foot-10 point guard of the 2009 Pitt team that lost to Villanova on Scottie Reynolds’ game-winner in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, continues to lead his squad. He yelled out instructions from the bench and called his teammates into a huddle when they started to show some nerves from the free throw line in the final minute.
Antonio Graves, who made four three-pointers and scored 12 points in only 19 minutes, said, “Getting to practice and compete against guys like LeVance every day, it made playing teams like Villanova, Syracuse and Connecticut so much easier because we knew we had competed so hard in practice.”
That competitive spirit and strong work ethic clearly led The Untouchables to be confident in their ability to beat any team in this tournament … especially Boeheim’s Army.
“Many of us haven’t lost to Syracuse,” Fields said. “Unfortunately, me and ‘Ton (Graves) lost to Syracuse when (Gerry) McNamara had that unbelievable run at [Madison Square] Garden, so we just wanted to keep our good streak going against them. Even though it’s years later, no disrespect, we feel like we own Syracuse. We always play pretty well against their zone, and we felt like we were going to do that tonight.”
Pitt players have proven time and again that they will beat you if you underestimate them. They have a difficult quarterfinal game against No. 1 seed City of Gods Saturday at noon on ESPN2. But as long as they’re playing with other guys whose toughness and dedication they trust, they’ll enjoy themselves and feel pretty good about their chances.
“We always talk about Pitt guys play together,” Dixon said. “We missed that. It’s always fun playing with Pitt guys, so that was the No. 1 thing — we wanted to play together.”