BUFFALO, N.Y. - Levance Fields wasn’t about to let two missed free throws ruin Pittsburgh’s season.
Fields atoned for his misses at the end of regulation, hitting a 3-pointer in overtime, and Pitt recovered after blowing a 19-point lead to beat upstart Virginia Commonwealth 84-79 Saturday in the second round of the West Regional.
“After the two free throws, my teammates and coaches came to me and told me to put it behind me,” said Fields, who could have given Pitt a lead with 2.1 seconds left. “We had five more minutes to get the job done, and everybody believed in me, so my confidence was still up.
“I didn’t want to let my team down, so when I took that shot I was very confident,” said Fields, who hit the clutch shot while falling away from the basket to give Pitt a 75-71 lead with 3:09 left. “When it went through the basket, it was a feeling of relief.”
Ronald Ramon scored five points in the extra session for third-seeded Pitt (29-7), which has never won more than two games in an NCAA tournament. Pitt meets UCLA and former Panthers coach Ben Howland in San Jose, Calif., next week.
The Panthers will make their fourth appearance in school history in the round of 16, but getting there wasn’t easy despite Pitt’s dominating first half, which produced a 15-point lead at the break.
Eric Maynor, who hit the game-winning shot to beat Duke in the first round, led a comeback from a 51-32 deficit over the final 12 minutes of regulation.
Jesse Pellot-Rosa had 20 points, all after halftime, and B.A. Walker also had 20 for the 11th-seeded Rams (28-7). Maynor finished with 14 points, eight assists and three steals.
Sam Young finished with 15 points to lead Pitt and Aaron Gray had 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists despite suffering food poisoning overnight and getting only an hour of sleep. Mike Cook and Young each made a pair of free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the triumph.
Pitt dominated the first half behind Gray, and even he picked up his third foul early in the second half and had to sit for five minutes, the Rams were unable to mount a charge. When Gray fed Keith Benjamin for an easy basket with 12:11 left, Pitt was up 51-32.
Then Pellot-Rosa found his range and the Rams began to surge behind their stifling press, which helped force 11 second-half turnovers that led to 19 points.
With chants of “VCU! VCU! reverberating through the Rams cheering section, they staged a furious rally as Maynor waved his arms in earnest, urging the fans to keep up the noise.
“You’re going to go through adversity in a basketball game,” Maynor said. “Going into halftime, we were down 15 and the first thing he (coach Anthony Grant) came in and said was, ’We’ve got another half, another 20 minutes.’ The only way we was going to stop fighting was if the time ran out. This team, we’ve just got a lot of heart, a will to win. We just fell short.”
Pellot-Rosa scored nine points, Maynor scored on a driving layup, and Walker hit a pair of 3-pointers, the second tying the game 67-all with 1:42 left.
Pellot-Rosa’s rebound off his own miss gave VCU its only lead of the game, 69-67, with 52 seconds left. But Young tied it with a fast-break layup eight seconds later before Fields missed from the line twice with 2.1 seconds left to force OT.
First-year coach Grant said, “I’m disappointed for my players because they believed that they could win the game. They believe in each other.”
And why not.
In the final two minutes of the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, Maynor made two huge steals and scored nine points to rally the Rams from five points down to a 65-59 victory over last year’s NCAA tournament darling George Mason.
And against Duke, he signaled he didn’t want Grant to call a time out in the closing seconds, took an inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor before launching the winning jumper in the lane with 1.8 seconds left.
“More than losing,” Grant said, “they’re disappointed that this team doesn’t get to play together (anymore).”
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