Something needed to happen today. Somehow and some way Pitt needed to steal a win against a much better Notre Dame team this afternoon. The Panthers' tournament hopes were all but crushed on Tuesday night, as they endured an embarrassing 70-67 overtime loss to a 9-12 Virginia Tech team. If the season had any hope, or any kind of promise at all - an upset had to happen today, and indeed it actually came to fruition. So who did Pitt turn to with their season on the brink? Their much criticized junior point guard, James Robinson - of course. Would you expect anything else?
So how do you knock off one of the nation's top teams? Locking down their star player is a good start, and Robinson and a host of defenders sure made that happen. Jerian Grant was held to just two first half points, en route to a modest 14 point performance, which was a fry cry from his 23 point 12 assist showing against Duke on Wednesday night. Slowing down Grant's assists was part of the plan also, as Jamie Dixon noted, they "emphasized" taking that away from him as he only finished with three dishes on the day.
The senior All-American to be was visibly frustrated at time today, and he air-balled a three-pointer at one point in the second half, and missed a subsequent free throw as chants of "air ball" came down from the boisterous Oakland Zoo to rattle the fifth-year senior. Grant is too good to be held down all game as he mounted a late comeback and had his team in position to win, but Pitt stayed within striking distance throughout the contest with Grant's mostly quiet game.
So Grant was held down on offense, did Robinson take advantage when the ball was in his own hands? Sure did. The junior guard had a tremendous performance that saw him post his first double double of the season. Robinson opened the game with a quick five points, and finished the day with 15 on 5-8 shooting, including 2-2 from behind the arc. The Panther guard also dished out 10 assists while committing just one turnover in 39 minutes of game action - the most of any Pitt player on Saturday.
When it mattered most, there was little doubt who should have the ball in his hands with Pitt down one point and 31 seconds on the clock. Robinson did not disappoint with the late game heroics, as he saved his best minute of the game for last. Robinson knifed through the lane, spun and hit the game-winning shot on a little floater with 12 seconds on the clock. For good measure, with Pitt facing the ultimate "foul or don't foul up three' scenario,Robinson took matters into his own hands and picked off the inbounds pass, hit a foul shot to set the final score and put the game out of reach.
James Robinson has caught a lot of heat this season for his play. The DeMatha Catholic product's scoring, rebounding, and assist averages are all up from a year ago, but his shooting percentages are down and turnovers are up as well. Robinson had a pair of forgettable showings lately as he went combined 2-15 against Georgia Tech and Duke, but since the Duke loss he is averaging 13 points a game and 6 assists, and has made a number of clutch shots over the course of the last three games. Pitt is a better team when he is productive, and a game like today may make him realize this even more.
As a team, Pitt made it happen today when they absolutely had to do it. The season was at a crossroads and stealing a win or two against one of the top ACC teams was a must. The Panthers still have an uphill battle with a big seven game month of February on the horizon, but if James Robinson is playing like he did today, he would make Mike Brey a smart man, as the long tenured Notre Dame coach said of Pitt, "They're an NCAA tournament team." That remains to be seen, but at least with this version of Robinson - they have a shot.