Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011
Pitt stop ends well for Wagner in shocking upset of 15th-ranked Panthers, 59-54
by CORMAC GORDON
PITTSBURGH — When Dan Hurley first accepted the Wagner College head coaching job 20 months ago, he insisted that his vision of the Seahawk program was more than just to be consistently competitive in the Northeast Conference.
The one-time Seton Hall point guard with the pedigree of basketball royalty dropped names like Gonzaga and Butler when he talked about what he perceived as the possibilities on Grymes Hill.
A season-and-a-half later, Hurley’s now 8-3 Seahawks traveled to the 15th-ranked University of Pittsburgh and stunned the Panthers at the Petersen Events Center, with a combination of in-your-face defense that forced 18 Pitt turnovers and an unwillingness to wilt at crunch-time, in a 59-54 victory, Wagner’s first over a ranked opponent since defeating No.15 Alabama on Nov. 24, 1978, years before the 3-point line, the NBA draft lottery and home computers.
“We schedule games like this in an effort to elevate the program, but also to give the kids the opportunity to capture these types of memories,” Hurley said of Wagner’s most high-profile win in decades. “Anyone who plays and works as hard as we do deserves these moments, and tonight I thought we just were better than they were.”
Latif Rivers, who is still rebounding from off-season surgery on a torn labrum in his shooting shoulder, led the Seahawks with 18 points, all of them in the second half.
Most importantly, the sophomore guard scored Wagner’s final eight points including going a perfect 6 of 6 from the free-throw line over the final 59 seconds after Pitt had cut a 12-point Wagner lead to 49-46 with two minutes remaining.
Tyler Murray added 10 points for Wagner.
And sparkplug point guard Kenny Ortiz not only contributed 12 points and seven assists for the Seahawks, but ignited an end-to-end defense that forced one Pitt (9-2) miscue after another, changing the complexion of play almost from the opening minutes.
“We got something from everyone tonight,” said Hurley, who was a 5-year-old the last time the program beat a ranked opponent. “Guys made shots when no one else was, other guys came off the bench and gave us big minutes when fouls were an issue. The bottom line is this is a stubborn group. They didn’t want to fail.”
Wagner took the lead at 20-19 with 5:55 remaining in the first half and never lost it.
After being outscored 9-2 to begin the game, the Seahawks regained their footing, went on the attack, and rallied to a 29-25 halftime lead. That after holding the powerhouse Panthers scoreless for one eight-minute stretch and stringing together a late 9-0 run that was aided by back-to-back Murray 3s.
Much of that success, however, was due to Ortiz, who scored 10 first-half points and clearly rattled Big East preseason Player of the Year Ashton Gibbs, holding him to zero first-half points on 0-for-7 shooting.
“Sometimes, I think you have to be a real student of the game to understand everything a player like Kenny does for a team,” Hurley said of the sophomore transfer from Southern Miss. “Our philosophy is to extend the defense and make things uncomfortable for other teams. And when you have someone as aggressive and assertive as Kenny, you can do that.”
When halftime ended, Hurley’s club went right back on the offensive.
The Seahawks rushed out on a 15-7 spurt, getting 10 quick points from Rivers on an offensive assortment that included 3-pointers, lane floaters and offensive put-backs.
“Latif’s just getting his stroke back after being laid up for five months,” Hurley said of the sophomore guard. “Basically, he’s had to re-learn the art of shooting the ball. He’s such a competitive, tough kid ... that’s been hard on him.”
The rally extended the lead to 44-32 at the 11:52 point.
It was tough and ragged going from there, with Wagner’s Jonathan Williams stopping a 6-0 Pitt run with a drive to the rim; and Williams halting a 5-1 Panther surge moments later, this time with a spinning bank shot in the lane.
By then, the Wagner lead had shrunk to 51-46 with 1:57 remaining, and the balance of the offense was left to Rivers.
He scored on a corner jumper with 1:36 left to give Wagner a 53-46 edge; then went to the free-throw line three times over the final 59 seconds, making all six of his attempts.
“Before the game, we talked to the guys about the last time Wagner had defeated a ranked team,” said Hurley. “Now, we’ll go back to our 2,000-seat gym and to the Northeast Conference, but we’ll go understanding better the type of things we can accomplish.”
NOTES: Wagner travels to the Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara, Ca., next week where the Seahawks will open against Air Force on Dec. 29. ... The last time Wagner defeated a Big East opponent was an 80-78 upset of Rutgers in December of 1995. ... Two former Duke All-America point guards, Wagner assistant Bobby Hurley and Pitt radio color man (and great Pirates shortstop) Dick Groat, chatted pre-game. ... Pitt had never lost to an NEC opponent in 70 previous games.
Wagner stuns #15 Pitt 59-54December 24, 2011