Pitt enjoys Garden party by knocking off the Hoyas

NEW YORK -- One is a foot-stomping, arm-flailing, fast talker whose intensity practically seeps out of his pores.

The other is so unassuming he barely managed a smile when his team won the Big East Championship, a quiet pianist and poet who attended the most ideal marriage of high school name and personality possible -- Friendly High.

Together Jamie Dixon and Sam Young converged as the calming salve for a Pittsburgh team that desperately needed soothing. They helped the Panthers to not only merely overcome the adversity that hovered around them like a mushroom cloud, but rallied around it.

On Saturday night as the rest of the team celebrated the Panthers' 74-65 victory over Georgetown to win the Big East Championship, each stood off to the side of the fanfare, observing like the proud papas who had taught their kids how to win.

Young casually sauntered back to midcourt, not even breaking a smile until teammate Gilbert Brown bear-hugged him and Dixon walked away from the celebration, heading to a television interview.

"In moments like that, it probably takes a while for things to register because it's such a big goal," Young said. "Once you get there, you think, did this really happen?"

Four games in four days? We've been through a lot more than that this year. We lost four guys in two weeks for the year.

--Jamie Dixon

Pittsburgh is just the second team in the tournament history to win four games on four nights to capture the Big East crown. Somehow that makes perfect sense. The easy road wouldn't have suited these Panthers.

"Four games in four days? We've been through a lot more than that this year," Dixon said. "We lost four guys in two weeks for the year."

In the early part of the season, Pittsburgh was a slam-dunk of a top 10 pick. Even though the Panthers lost powerful big man Aaron Gray to graduation, they returned a talented, veteran bunch that was sure to challenge in the Big East.

And then Mike Cook tore his ACL during the thrilling win at Madison Square Garden against Duke on Dec. 20.

Nine days later, Levance Fields broke his foot.

Roll in the Dec. 14 fractured patella to Austin Wallace and the early January hip/groin injury to Cassin Diggs and the MASH unit Panthers went from surefire NCAA tournament team to a team many worried wouldn't even finish in the Big East top 12 and make the conference tourney.

The Panthers liked to say back then that they were strong, that they were confident, but with the Big East trophy safely tucked away, they admit now there were private moments where they fretted just as much as the outsiders. When the inevitable skid came, stagger steps in the beginning of the Big East season followed by a three-game drop in late February, even they wondered whether they would survive.

"It kind of brings you back down to Earth and you think maybe we're not as good as we think we are, as we can be and should be," Young said. "I felt like I had to do the impossible to bring the team back, and I'm sure Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin did, too."

The thing is, they did. They pieced and patched and matched and mixed. They took a team that had no more than seven players available, that called on players who would need surgery when the season ends (like Diggs) to serve as practice fodder and they kept on. Ramon, a 2-guard, gamely slid over to the point while Fields rehabbed, and Benjamin, a role player off the bench, eased into the role of starter.

But no change was greater or more vital than Young's. A quiet kid who isn't comfortable in a leadership role, he stepped out of his shell because he knew he had to. Always a tireless worker -- Dixon last year insisted Young stop going to the gym in every spare moment, convincing Young that rest and not manic workouts would cure the tendinitis in his achy knees -- Young worked even harder. He broke down more film and took more shots, thrilled to see Ramon and Benjamin doing the same thing.

"I felt like if I didn't do something, this season was going to be a waste," Young said. "It was that close."

Working through their kinks and holding on for dear life until Fields returned and then become the player he had been, the Panther team on the court Saturday night in New York is the Panther team everyone expected in November. They schooled Georgetown on the boards (41-29) and beat the Hoyas on every hustle play.

Bridesmaids to the Big East Championship in seven of the last eight years, Pittsburgh this time didn't blink when the Hoyas, playing arguably their best basketball as well, put the gulp in the Garden. With 1:17 to play and trailing 68-60, Roy Hibbert corralled a Jonathan Wallace missed 3-pointer and appeared poised to go in for the easy lay-in.

There were some times we didn't think we could overcome this. A lot of teams wouldn't. I think it's the character of our players, our coaches and the tradition. As a player, I came to a tradition that Pitt is a winning team and I'm going to leave it that way.

--Sam Young

Instead Young launched every centimeter of his 6-foot-6 frame, snuffing the 7-2 Hibbert's shot.

"They just played like they wanted to win," Jessie Sapp said.

That's sort of the understated but overpowering attitude comes from the other side of the yin-yang.

Only North Carolina State's Everett Case had a more successful introductory four-year run than Dixon. He is 105-30, one of only nine coaches in NCAA Division I history to win more than 100 games in the first four years of his coaching career.

Drake coach Keno Davis is a natural for coach of the year consideration, what with his out-of-nowhere rise to prominence, but Dixon may have done something even more unprecedented. He used band-aids, gumption and stubborn conviction to win what is easily the most difficult league in the country.

"I think people try to make it more dramatic than it is," Dixon said. "There's all this talk. I was who I was and I wasn't going to change. Any change the players would have been able to figure out and realized I wasn't real. I tried to not make it as big a transition to me and to others and I'll continue to downplay it."

But if this team possesses anything, it is Dixon's personality. Even the unassuming Young is a closet Dixon. He doesn't say much about being irked by naysayers, but privately he collects press clippings in his locker and warehouses negative comments, building a private Rolodex of motivation.

"A lot of people said we were done," Young said. "… I always like a challenge but at the same time, there were some times we didn't think we could overcome this. A lot of teams wouldn't. I think it's the character of our players, our coaches and the tradition. As a player, I came to a tradition that Pitt is a winning team and I'm going to leave it that way."

Young said it softly, friendly even, but you could tell he meant it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.