FINAL HOME GAME–Pittsburgh’s Dante Taylor, right, shoots a hook over Villanova’s Mouphtaou Yarou on Sunday, March 3, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
by Will Graves
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Dante Taylor spent four years at Pittsburgh trying to live up to sky high expectations.
The former McDonald’s All-American slogged through lengthy stretches of mediocre play, his production never quite matching the 6-foot-10 center’s massive promise.
Still, the player coach Jamie Dixon called “the best teammate we’ve ever had” found a way to provide an exclamation point to both his career and his team’s final home game as a member of the Big East.
Taylor’s emphatic breakaway dunk in the final seconds of overtime closed out a 73-64 comeback victory over Villanova and gave Taylor and best friend Tray Woodall an emotional sendoff on Senior Day.
“It was the best way to end it,” said Taylor, who had seven points and six rebounds in his first start in more than a year.
Perhaps it was the only way for the 23-ranked Panthers to wrap up 31 seasons in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
Pitt (23-7, 11-6 Big East) trailed by nine in the second half before tying it late in regulation and controlling the extra session to put a dent in Villanova’s NCAA tournament chances.
“You knew it was going to be like this,” Dixon said. “You knew it was going to come down to a couple possessions. That’s what it’s been every time we played (Villanova).”
Though Taylor and Woodall (13 points, 11 assists) provided an emotional lift it was the play of Talib Zanna and youngsters Durand Johnson and James Robinson that propelled Pitt to its third straight victory.
Talib Zanna scored nine of his 14 points in overtime and added a career-high 19 rebounds. Johnson knocked down three 3-pointers to help Pitt claw back and Robinson — who hadn’t made a 3-pointer in weeks — hit two big ones.
The first tied the game at 57 with 33 seconds left in regulation and the second gave Pitt a five-point cushion with 30 seconds remaining in the extra period.
Villanova coach Jay Wright wanted Robinson to have the ball in his hands with a chance to shoot. Wright just didn’t expect the ball to end up going through the net twice. Robinson had made just 5 of 21 3-pointers in 16 Big East games.
“We wanted to help off of him,” Wright said “But we didn’t want to give him an open shot. It’s execution on our part. We’ve got to do a better job.”
Ryan Arcidiacono led Villanova with 23 points but the Wildcats (18-12, 9-8) let an opportunity to pad their NCAA tournament resume slip away. Mouphtaou Yarou added 14 points and eight rebounds and JayVaughn Pinkston chipped in 13 but Villanova has now dropped two straight at perhaps the most important time of year.
“You know you’re running out of time,” Wright said. “Yeah it’s tough but it’s a season. We’ve got to bounce back and prepare for the next game, that’s what a season is all about.”
It’s a sentiment Zanna has learned from during a turbulent four months. He was easily Pitt’s best player during the nonconference portion of the schedule but has struggled in Big East play. He came in averaging just 7.0 points since league play began, but matched that total during the first two minutes of overtime as Pitt finally took control.
Zanna opened the extra session with a traditional three-point play then added two free throws and a short jumper to give Pitt a 64-57 lead.
“I just kept playing, kept crashing the glass and the ball kept falling into my hands,” Zanna said.
Villanova pulled within 66-64 on a 3-pointer by Arcidiacono but Robinson responded by calmly draining a 3 from the left corner with 30 seconds left and the Wildcats never scored again.
Taylor did, his dunk capping 24 mostly energetic minutes as he filled in for freshman center Steven Adams, who was forced to sit with a sprained left ankle. Playing in front of his mother and members of his extended family, Taylor played with grit if not always grace, a perfect metaphor for his career.
When Dixon pulled Taylor with a second remaining and the outcome decided, Taylor clutched Woodall and walked off the floor in triumph.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked and more,” Dixon said. “He got the ovation he deserved.”
The final regular season game in a rivalry that dates back to 1960 looked a lot like the 64 meetings that came before. Neither team could muster much momentum early as things turned physical quickly.
The first half featured more fouls (21) than field goals (18) as Pittsburgh was unable to maintain an emotional lift from Taylor, making his first start of the season on senior day with several members of his extended family in attendance for the first time.
Even with the 7-foot Adams out, Villanova opted to work from the outside in. Arcidiacono knocked down 3 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes as the Wildcats — desperately trying to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing it last spring — took a 28-25 lead into the break.
It didn’t last, as Pitt closed a proud chapter in its history while eyeing the start of a new one next fall when the Panthers join Syracuse as new members of the ACC.
“You wonder how it can get any better than this in playing in the best conference in the country,” Dixon said. “But our hopes and our plans are to make the ACC the best conference in the country. That’s why they came after us and Syracuse. They didn’t come after us to pull it down. They came after us to build it up.”
Follow Will Graves on twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP