for this game

Gray, second-half run gets Pitt back atop Big East

Feb 28, 2007 - 6:01 AM PITTSBURGH (Ticker) -- With the returning health of Aaron Gray, Pittsburgh improved its chances for a league title.

Gray scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as the No. 12 Panthers concluded their regular season at home with an 80-66 victory over West Virginia in a Big East Conference contest.

Levance Fields scored all 14 of his points in the second half for Pittsburgh (25-5, 12-3 Big East), which pulled into a tie with Georgetown for the top spot in the conference. The Panthers finish the season at Marquette on Saturday, while the Hoyas host Connecticut.

With the two teams splitting their season series after Georgetown posted a 61-53 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday, the Panthers will need to beat the Golden Eagles and hope that the Hoyas fall to the Huskies to capture the title.

"It was motivation," Gray said about improving the chances for a league crown. "We were letting it slip away (after losing to Georgetown). (Winning the Big East) was a huge goal for us in the preseason, just one of many that we have."

"We're right where we want to be, playing for first place," Pittsburgh coach Jaime Dixon said. "We have a high RPI. When it's all said and done, we're right where we need to be."

While Gray, who suffered a left ankle injury against Washington on February 17, returned from a one-game absence to face the Hoyas, the 7-footer had just 10 points and six rebounds.

The preseason Big East Player of the Year, Gray appeared much more comfortable against the Mountaineers, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and pulling down five offensive boards en route to his first double-double in four games.

"It felt good," Gray said. "During the game when the adrenaline is going and the medicine is kicking in, it's good. Maybe later tonight is when I'm going to feel it."

With their top player back in form, the Panthers looked more like the top team they have been most of the season, going on a decisive 14-3 spurt in the second half to finish up with a 16-2 mark at the Petersen Events Center.

"Pitt plays well in any building, let alone this building," West Virginia coach John Beilein said. "They showed our guys why they are so successful. We have to shoot at an extremely high rate to play with a team that has a strength advantage like Pitt."

Holding a 49-48 edge with under 10 minutes remaining, the Panthers took control as the Mountaineers struggled offensively.

Fouled on a defensive rebound, Pittsburgh senior Levon Kendall hit two free throws to make it 51-48 with 8:59 remaining. After West Virginia was off the mark on another possession, Mike Cook hit a 3-pointer.

Tyrell Biggs, who finished with seven points, added consecutive baskets later and Fields hit a 3-pointer to supply a 61-51 advantage with 5:48 left.

The sophomore point guard was actually fouled on the play, but failed to convert the free throw to miss out on a four-point play. Fields finished 4-of-8 from the field with two 3-pointers and handed out five assists.

Kendall and Cook both had 12 points each for the Panthers, who shot 70 percent (16-of-23) in the second half to pull away.

Overall, Pittsburgh finished 60 percent (29-of-48) from the field compared to 40 percent (22-of-55) for West Virginia. It marked just the second time in the last five games that the Panthers had a higher shooting percentage than their opponent.

The sizzling shooting was a by-product of Pittsburgh's strong passing, finishing with 24 assists on 29 made baskets. Senior guard Antonio Graves had six assists and Cook added five.

Another reason was the presence of Gray, who created open spots on the perimeter after scoring all of his points in the opening 25 1/2 minutes of the contest.

"We got open shots because of Aaron down low," Cook said. "Aaron deserves a lot of credit. We just got open shots and finally knocked them down. We didn't let the 1-3-1 (zone) make us stationary. When we would catch it, we were ready to shoot. People in the corners and on the wing had to be ready to shoot."

Darris Nichols had 14 points for the Mountaineers (20-8, 8-7), who went more than 5 1/2 minutes without a field goal late in the second half to absorb their second straight loss.

Reserve Jamie Smalligan added a season-high 13 points and Joe Mazzulla added 11 and six assists for West Virginia, which failed to strengthen its chances for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, falling to 2-3 against ranked teams this season.

"It would have been a big win, but it doesn't mean the season's over," Beilein said. "I don't think I even have to talk about it with the team. I think they know it's important (to defeat Cincinnati at home on Saturday). There's a lot of pressure this time of year and a lot of drama. That's why this arena was filled tonight and why ours will be filled on Saturday."

Mountaineers leading scorer Frank Young wilted under the late-season pressure, finishing with just two points on 1-of-7 shooting, including 0-of-5 on 3-pointers.

The 6-5 senior entered the contest with a 14.2 scoring average and leads the Big East with 84 baskets from the arc.

"I'm not going to worry about a guy not shooting well," Beilein said. "I want our guys to keep shooting. We shoot it when we're open and pass it when we're not."