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Zoo Crew falls in first-round upset in TBT

The Pitt alumni team has suffered first-round upsets in consecutive years

Pittsburgh Panthers v Marquette Golden Eagles Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, Pitt was represented in The Basketball Tournament by the Zoo Crew, and for the second year in a row, the Zoo Crew fell in an upset in the first round of the competition. In 2017, it was a 100-87 loss as a fifth seed to 12th-seeded Sideline Cancer. On Saturday, the seventh-seeded Zoo Crew fell to the 10th-seeded Jackson TN Underdawgs 86-77.

Last year, the knock on the Zoo Crew was its one-dimensional offense, which was heavily reliant on former Pitt standout Levance Fields. When all was said and done, he had accounted for 35 points against Sideline Cancer, and only two of his teammates had posted double-digit point totals. Those two players were non-Pitt alums Ricky Harris and Jerrell Wright.

Harris, who played at UMass from 2006 to 2010, returned as a member of the Zoo Crew this year and was the team’s only consistent offensive threat, putting up a game-high 23 points. Fields was unable to contribute at the same level he did last year, when he drained 11 of his 12 three-point shots. This time around, he only made one of four shots from beyond the arc and added 13 points.

Tyrell Biggs and Gilbert Brown scored 13 points apiece as well, and Biggs would finish the day with a double-double, as he also pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.

However, the team saw little from the likes of former Panthers Antonio Graves and Gary McGhee and former Houston center Marcus Cousin. The trio collectively accounted for 15 points, but Cousin failed to contribute anything to the cause, other than a single rebound.

Despite the Zoo Crew’s more balanced approach this year, the team wasn’t consistent enough to top the Underdawgs, who cruised ahead in the second quarter and never let up.

One notable factor working in the Jackson team’s favor was its relative depth. With 12 players to the Zoo Crew’s seven, the Underdawgs could afford to rest players, while almost half of the Pitt team logged 30 minutes or more. For comparison, none of Jackson’s players exceeded 21.

That issue could have been mitigated had former Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon and former Temple standout Jesse Morgan seen minutes. But despite their presence on the Zoo Crew roster, neither took the court for the team this weekend. The team also attempted to add former Pitt star Ashton Gibbs to the roster but was ultimately unable to facilitate the late addition.

Prior to the Zoo Crew’s creation in 2017, Pitt had been represented in the tournament by the Untouchables, which also featured Fields, Dixon, Graves, Harris and McGhee. However, the more potent lineup included Talib Zanna and Brad Wanamaker as well, which seemed to make a significant difference, as that team was able to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament in 2016.

Up to this point, the Zoo Crew hasn’t been able to replicate that success amid constant personnel changes, and considering every Pitt alum on the current roster will be on the wrong side of 30 when the 2019 tournament rolls around, one has to wonder if the window of opportunity is closing for this iteration of the team or one like it to legitimately challenge for a TBT title.