Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ashton Gibbs didn’t go Joe Namath and guarantee a Final Four appearance.
But he does believe this is the Panthers’ year to finally break through.
Pitt, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, took the first step toward the school’s first Final Four since 1941 by dispatching No. 16 UNC-Asheville, 74-51, at the Verizon Center.
“I’m very confident,” said Gibbs, who scored 20 of his game-high 26 in the second half. “We’ve just got to take one game at a time. If we do that we’ll be fine.
“We have to keep playing our game, keep playing unselfish. Keep playing hard on the defensive end and I think if we do that we’ll be all right.”
Pitt (28-5) led by just five — 30-25 — at halftime but outscored Asheville 44-26 in the second half to advance.
Next up is a date Saturday with No. 8 Butler (24-9), which beat No. 9 Old Dominion, 60-58, on the strength of a thrilling last-second layup by Matt Howard off a broken play.
With the game tied at 58, Butler guard Shawn Vanzant fell as he put up a short jumper on the right side of the basket in the final seconds. Andrew Smith, Butler’s 6-foot-11 center, jumped and tipped the ball.
Howard ran around the back side of the play from the foul line and the ball landed in his mitts underneath the basket on the left side.
“It’s pretty easy when it’s just you and the ball and the rim,” Howard said.
Butler is coming off an appearance in the national championship game last season, where it fell to Duke when Gordon Hayward’s last-second prayer caromed off the rim.
Pitt, despite being set up to make deep postseason runs, has struggled to go do so.
Under head coach Jamie Dixon, Pitt lost to Villanova in the Elite Eight in 2009 on Scottie Reynolds’ late coast-to-coast shot.
They advanced to the Sweet 16 in ’03, ’04 and ’07.
“Every team has that belief, that confidence that they can win the national championship,” Dixon said. “Every player on every one of these rosters.
“We’re just like those teams. We’re really focused on the next game and that’s what we’ve been saying all year. That’s what we’ve been saying since we got here.
“Right now, it’s Butler and…that’s our sole focus. They’re focused solely on Butler and there’s no thought to what’s after that.”
Pittsburgh watched the Bulldogs defeat Arkansas-Little Rock, 81-77, in the “First Four” at Dayton Arena Tuesday night.
Asheville flew directly on a chartered jet to Washington after the game and arrived at their hotel at about 3 a.m. But they spent most of Wednesday sleeping in until a late practice.
“We probably got a little tired [against Pitt] but I wouldn’t say it had an effect for us losing the game,” said Asheville guard Matt Dickey, who scored a team-best 21 points.
Pitt, meanwhile, has been off since getting upset by eventual champion UConn in the Big East quarterfinals last Thursday.
It was in the wake of that game that Gibbs gave Pittsburgh reporters his semi-guarantee of a Final Four appearance.
“It’s something we’re going to do,” he said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m just telling you, that’s what we’re going to do this year. We’re going to get to the Final Four.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.