BUFFALO -- Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon would gladly put guard Levance Fields on the free-throw line with the game on the line just about every time. The sophomore from Brooklyn, besides being a 78.8 percent foul shooter, plays with that New York City toughness and backs down to no one, in no situation.
So when Fields drove into the lane and got the benefit of a questionable call with 2.1 seconds left in Saturday's second-round game against Virginia Commonwealth, Dixon figured the game was over. It was tied at 69, and the coach figured the worst his sophomore would do was make at least one shot.
But Fields, who admitted it was the most pressure he's ever felt as a player, clanked both badly and sent the game into overtime.
"I really felt he was going to knock them down," Dixon said. "I had a lot of confidence in him. Sometimes it happens. They don't go down. But the one thing I know about him is it's not going to affect him. It's not going to bother him."
Fields more than redeemed himself in the extra session as third-seeded Pittsburgh survived a furious VCU second-half rally for an 84-79 win in Buffalo's HSBC Arena to advance to the Sweet 16 in San Jose.
In overtime, the 5-foot-10 sophomore nailed a high arcing 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of first-round hero Eric Maynor. A minute later, he grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball quickly up the court, finding teammate Ronald Ramon for a wide-open 3-pointer. The back-to-back 3s gave Pitt a 78-71 lead and control of the overtime session.
"Once I created space, I knew I was shooting it," Fields said. "I had all the confidence in the world it was going to go in. Especially after missing those free throws, I wanted to make a play. Once it went through the basket, it was just a great feeling of relief."
The Panthers (29-7) made their last four free throws to seal the victory and end VCU's remarkable season. The 11th-seeded Rams (28-7) won the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season and tournament titles and knocked off Duke in the first round, giving the school its first NCAA tournament win since 1985.
And they didn't do down without a fight on Saturday. After trailing by 15 points at halftime and by 19 points with just 12:11 left in regulation, VCU used a frantic full-court press to create havoc. Pittsburgh committed half of its 16 turnovers in a 10-minute span in the second stanza as the Rams turned the 19-point deficit into a tie game with 1:42 to go.
Dixon blamed fatigue -- caused by food poisoning to star center Aaron Gray (14 points, eight rebounds and five assists) and Mike Cook's sore knee (12 points and eight rebounds) -- as part of the reason for his team's sloppy second-half play and VCU's dramatic comeback. With Gray and Cook limited well below their usual minutes, Dixon had to lean on a shorter rotation.
The Rams recognized Pittsburgh's fatigue and believed they could take advantage in the five-minute overtime. But Gray used his big body to back his way into a layup and the lead, which the Panthers would never relinquish.
After a brief gasp of hope with Fields' two missed free throws at the end of regulation, the season came to a quick and painful end for VCU.
"We were thinking that we've got this game won," said Rams senior Jesse Pellot-Rosa. "They're tired. They're winded. We've got this game won. But a couple of their guys hit two crucial 3-pointers. They pushed the lead up and we ran out of time."
Kim Baxter is a staff writer for the Syracuse Post-Standard.