A Night to Remember | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Night to Remember

Pitt deposes Duke on a huge night in local sports history

On a night when the Steelers were literally playing for their post-season lives in St. Louis and the Penguins were in Boston, desperate for points within the Eastern Conference, 5-foot-10-inch Levance Fields upstaged them all.

It doesn't get more exciting than the Penguins blowing a four-goal lead against the Bruins, then winning an overtime shoot-out, Erik Christensen and Kris LeTang burying shots over the shoulder of Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, as Ty Conklin turned away Phil Kessel and Marco Sturm.

It doesn't get more important than Pro Bowl-bound Ben Roethlisberger going 16 of 20 with three touchdown passes when the Steelers absolutely, positively had to have his best effort.

Or maybe it does, if you're the Pitt basketball team, which on the same night clawed its way back from a 12-point halftime deficit at Madison Square Garden to win 65-64. And it was the diminutive (by basketball standards) Fields who sealed the outcome: Pitt's junior point guard dropped a three-point shot in overtime, putting away the gold standard of college basketball, the Blue Devils of Duke.

Love them or hate them, few things say success in college hoops like Duke. Three national championships, 14 Final Four appearances. Perhaps the most easily recognizable coach in college sports, Mike Krzyzewski. Duke has sent more than 70 players to the NBA.

Cue Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," because when you play Duke, you play history: Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Elton Brand, Shane Battier and J.J. Redick. You're up against all those Final Four banners, the incessant television coverage and constant harping about the Duke-UNC rivalry. Duke casts a shadow over everything else in college basketball.

And it's not just history that opposing team contend with. This season Duke added three McDonald's All-American freshman players and ranked seventh in the nation coming into the Dec. 20 tilt with the Panthers.

If you have to beat the best to be the best, the Pitt Panthers showed that they are a legitimate Final Four team.

Freshman sensation DeJuan Blair put together his most dominant effort during the biggest game of his young career, with 15 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks. Just another day at the office for Blair; as he comes down with a rebound -- elbows cocked, grin spread from ear to ear -- makes clear that he simply owns the defensive boards.

Still, nobody showed up bigger than Fields. Nobody on either side of the ball logged more minutes on court than his 40, and nobody meant more to their team.

With the Panthers completely stymied on the offensive end and down by 11, Fields jump-started them with a two-point jumper to end a 6:10 first-half scoring drought. Fields was also the only Pitt player to hit a three-pointer. In fact, he had three on the night, the biggest nine points of his career.

The first of them cut Duke's lead to 13, keeping the Panthers within striking distance with little more than three minutes remaining in the first half.

Pitt was down by 10 with nine-and-a-half minutes left in regulation. But less than a minute later, following lay-ups by Blair and Sam Young, Fields uncorked his second three-point shot of the night, pulling the Panthers to within three. Game on.

As though he hadn't done enough to carry his team, with 10 seconds left in overtime and down by two, Fields took the team on his shoulders one more time, drove toward the paint, stepped back behind the three-point line, and let it rip.

There may not be a more pointless, self-serving exercise than prognostication, so I won't diminish the Panthers' upset of Duke by trying to extrapolate what it will mean for this team this year.

And anyway, the important question isn't whether they will win the Big East, or if this is the season Pitt finally gets past the Sweet Sixteen. This game demonstrated that no matter what happens the rest of the season, you can't question the joy DeJuan Blair brings to the court, or the guts and tenacity of Levance Fields.