Coaches vs. Cancer, Night 1: Notebook

November, 19, 2010
11/19/10
1:28
AM ET
NEW YORK -- Pittsburgh is known for recruiting players in the New York City metropolitan area. And coach Jamie Dixon has several on his roster this season, including preseason All-American guard Ashton Gibbs.

And yet, it was an unheralded redshirt freshman power forward from Nigeria, playing in only his fifth collegiate game, who was the Panthers' MVP on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Talib Zanna -- a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward from Kaduna, Nigeria had 14 points and 12 rebounds in Pittsbugh's 79-70 win over Maryland in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

The No. 4-ranked Panthers will play No. 22 Texas for the championship on Friday night at approximately 7:30 p.m.

"Coach just told me, just go after the ball every time," Zanna said after the game. "So I was ready to go."

Rebounding was arguably the biggest reason for Pittsburgh's win Thursday night -- the Panthers outrebounded the Terrapins 49-28, including 15-6 on the offensive glass. Zanna played a major role in that.

"He plays with energy, that's his job," said Maryland coach Gary Williams of Zanna. "He does all the dirty work that some guys just don't want to do and that's why he starts. He just has great effort out there all the time."

Zanna -- who speaks five languages and was discovered through the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program -- said he doesn't care that he doesn't get as much fanfare as some of his other teammates.

"I don't really pay attention to that," Zanna said. "I just want to play my game, try to do what Coach Dixon is telling me."

A SORT OF HOMECOMING: Texas freshman forward Tristan Thompson won't soon forget his Madison Square Garden collegiate debut.

Thompson -- a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward who was the No. 10 player in his high school class and played high school ball at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey for a time -- posted a packed stat line of 20 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and four assists in the No. 22-ranked Longhorns' 90-84 overtime victory over No. 16 Illinois in the second semifinal of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

"Every time coming back to the tri-state area, you know, it feels like a secondary home to me," said Thompson. "So I was just excited to play and happy we got the win tonight."

Thompson is a native of Ontario, Canada, but played for Danny Hurley (now the head coach at Wagner College) at St. Benedict's until his junior year, when he was kicked off the team by Hurley for what was dubbed "player insubordination." Thompson finished his high school career at Findlay College Prep in Nevada.

"After I left St. Benedict's, you know, I just wanted to start with a clean slate," Thompson said after Thursday night's game. "Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, we just grew from that. I think me and Coach Hurley are closer than ever."

A NICE TOUCH: As Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon left his press conference and headed back out towards the court to do a postgame radio interview, the Pittsburgh band was coming the other way in the hallway. Dixon thanked the band members for their support repeatedly as they walked by.

SPOTTED: Former NBA players Allan Houston, Charles Smith and Mario Elie were spotted around the Garden on Thursday night -- as was current Philadelphia 76er Evan Turner, the former Ohio State star and No. 2 pick in the most recent NBA draft.

CROWD CONTROL: The official attendance was 12,210 on Thursday, but the upper decks of the Garden were rather empty -- which is a little disappointing, considering three of the top 25 teams in the nation were on display. We'll see what the crowd is like on Friday night.
Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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