PITTSBURGH — The win was a long time coming and it took an extra period, but for the first time since 1975, Pitt beat No. 11 Virginia, 88-76, in overtime at the Petersen Events Center on Thursday.
The nearly 42-year-long losing streak comprised just seven games, but the last four had been significant, with the Cavaliers besting the Panthers in four straight conference games, while holding Pitt to an average of 48 points. So clearly, the 88-point offensive explosion was something of an outlier for both squads.
The 88 points scored were the most Virginia had given up since 2013 and it was only the third time since head coach Tony Bennett arrived in 2009 that the Cavaliers gave up that many points.
It was a huge win for Pitt on multiple fronts. The Panthers avoided starting conference play 0-2 with a pair of home losses. They got their second win of the season over a ranked opponent and maybe most importantly, got over the hurdle of beating the Cavaliers.
“This one has extra meaning because I found out last night that these seniors had never beaten Virginia in their careers,” head coach Kevin Stallings said. “That was something that they wanted to do. I’m happy to win this game because you need to get the first one behind one. You don’t want to keep playing for your first one for very long. That’s a hollow feeling. So, I’m happy to have won for that reason, but it’s mainly about those guys. This is not my win, it’s their win. It’s their team.”
Senior forward Sheldon Jeter has been a part of two of those losses and he said they made his team hungry to flip the script on the trend.
“Every time we played them, we felt like we were in the game but there was a point in time where we came apart,” he said. “It seemed like it was going to the same old story as before, but we flipped the script. We stayed together, we stayed working together and that’s why we won.”
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Given the above, it’s restating the obvious, that former head coach Jamie Dixon never beat Virginia in four tries. With a team that’s pretty much inarguably less talented than the one that lost 50-64 to Virginia a year ago, how was Stallings able to what his predecessor never could?
According to Bennett, it’s about doing whatever it took to maximize the talent on Pitt’s roster and forcing the opposing team into difficult situations thanks to the unique nature of Pitt’s starting lineup.
“Fours and fives that can stretch the defense like that and they’re mobile — it’s tough,” Bennett said. “They were going in that direction last year with Coach Dixon offensively and then Coach Stallings is a terrific offensive coach. Terrific coach.
“You know they run five-man motion. They’re going to spread you out. He took advantage a couple times of that unique alignment with a post trap and got a couple easy ones and broke us down. He did a terrific job. They’re a challenge because of their personnel and the actions that they’re running. They’re scoring the ball. They’re averaging almost 90 a game.”
Pitt was able to capitalize on the outside shooting of its bigger players with Jamel Artis (6 for 7), Cameron Johnson (4 for 5), and Jeter (3 for 4) cashing in from beyond the arc and all of them checking in at 6-foot-7 or taller.
“It’s unconventional you got the five-man — Jeter — out there hitting some shots,” Bennett said. “Then [Michael] Young can go out there and play off the dribble and Artis with that size and play off the bounce, it’s real good.”
That type of five-man stretch offense has been available to Pitt for a while now as all six of the regulars are in their third season or more with the team. But it’s a strategy that was left untouched under Dixon.
Young was 4 of 12 from 3-point range from the entire season in 2015-16 and Jeter was 5 of 23. Young is now 20 of 47 on the season and Jeter is 12 of 33, with both players far outpacing their season-over-season production before the midway point of the schedule.
OWNING THE BOARDS
Eschewing a true big man for the team’s group of similarly sized and athletic forwards had other consequences, as well. The necessity to guard all the way out beyond the 3-point line meant that Bennett was forced to essentially bench starting center Jack Salt for fear he would be exposed.
Salt had averaged 19.6 minutes per game coming in, but played just two, and his absence was felt in the rebound department. Pitt out-rebounded Virginia, 42-24, with five players grabbing five or more including Chris Jones, the smallest player in Pitt’s starting lineup.
“They went small,” Stallings said. “I think early in the game, they determined that they had a better chance of covering us playing small and so when they did, we just kind of switched what we did a little bit.”
Bennett was frustrated at Pitt’s success, especially on the offensive glass, where the Panthers had a 12-6 advantage. In fact Pitt had nearly as many offensive rebounds (12) as Virginia had defensive (18).
“Our ‘pack’ defense positions us to be a good defensive rebounding team,” Bennett said. “So when a shot goes up, [players] have a responsibility to get a body on someone, hit them early and then we rebound as a group. When you give up that many offensive rebounds and give them second-chance points, those things just are tears in your defense.”
Pitt finished with 21 second-chance points and Jeter and Johnson shared the team lead with eight rebounds. Jeter now has 31 rebounds in his last three games.
“We’re smaller, but at the same time, we’re still athletic,” Jeter said. “We’re very physical. Half the battle is just going. After that, it’s just boxing someone out and going to get it.
SURVIVING ANOTHER DAGGER
Pitt had the lead for the majority of the game, but couldn’t close things out in regulation when Young’s jumper with eight seconds left clanged off the rim and Virginia forward London Perrantes made a dagger of a 3-point shot in transition to tie the game at 70-70 with 2.4 seconds left.
It was the second time in as many games that Pitt went to overtime, and they had been beaten in the extra frame on a last-second shot by Notre Dame just four days prior, something that was still fresh in the minds of the players and Stallings.
“It’s nice to have an older group,” Stallings said. “It’s nice to have veteran guys. It was tough for me to watch that ball go in. Heck, I’ve been through more games than these guys have and that was tough for me to see. … Going into the overtime, I just said, ‘Listen, we can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves or we can man up and do something about it.’ They obviously chose the latter.”
The ability to take punches and come out on top shows the maturity of the team which features four seniors.
“It shows that we learned a lot from Saturday,” Jeter said. “We dug down defensively. We took our time. We got good shots offensively. We didn’t drop our head when he hit the shot at the end of regulation. We came together and that’s something that a lot of people say we haven’t done in the past. I think we did that today.”
TO FOUL OR NOT TO FOUL
Perrantes’ big 3-pointer could have been avoided if the Panthers had fouled him before the could get the shot off. Pitt had committed just seven team fouls in the second half, so Perrantes would have had a one-and-one opportunity down three points with under eight seconds to play. Stallings said that he’d like a mulligan on the way he handled the decision.
“I’ll take responsibility for that because they got the ball at eight [seconds],” he said. “I had told our guys [to foul if they got the ball] under five [seconds]. In retrospect, I would have maybe played — since he made it — I would have played it just a little bit differently. … That’s a situation that’s tough to practice because it’s tough to get your guys to foul when the play is live. … The ball come off the rim and they’re coming at you. That’s a lot more difficult to orchestrate than if they were taking the ball out on the end line.”
LONG RANGE RAMPAGE
The team’s success from the 3-point line, where the Panthers shot 61.9 percent, wasn’t unexpected to Artis.
“We knew if they drove the ball, they were going to be in the gaps, so if we just made those quick passes, we’d line up a 3-pointer and shoot it,” Artis said. “That was one of the keys of the game, just attacking those gaps and then just kicking it to the first person and making shots.”
NOT SO FREE
While Pitt’s offense was extremely efficient from long range, they got less so the closer to the basket they got. They shot 53.7 percent from the floor and made just 60.7 percent of their free throws, including a 6-for-12 night from Artis and 3-for-7 from Young.
“I’ll try to work with Mike and Jamel on the free throws here soon,” Stallings joked.
Ryan Luther had a huge sequence late in regulation, with a shot-clock beating dunk, a tip-in and a block in short order. Luther’s late-game rampage was part of a mostly quiet night in which he had eight points and four rebounds, but they came in crucial moments.
NEW TO THE ZOO
The attendance for the game was 9,814, well short of the over 12,000 required to sell out the building, but the atmosphere was buoyed by an electric student section that was the second-largest student crowd in the history of the building according to the team. Stallings had said from the beginning that one of the things he was looking forward to this season was playing in front of the Oakland Zoo and he didn’t leave disappointed.
“I thought they had a tremendous effect on the outcome of the game,” he said. “I knew it was probably going to be pretty electric because I got a text from Chancellor [Patrick] Gallagher before the game today telling me that the Zoo would be out in full force. Whenever the chancellor starts texting you telling you that the students are going to show up, there’s probably a pretty good chance they’ll be there. Our crowd was great, the students were awesome and I thought they really impacted the game. I really mean that.”
A pair of former Pitt big men were in attendance as both Charles Smith and DeJuan Blair took the game in. There was also a notable absence, as well. Walk-on forward Ryan Seelye decided to leave the team following the semester break in order to focus on his academics.
The team had been playing short a scholarship player all season. With the semester break over and the possibility of adding an outside player passed, Stallings decided to reward his lone remaining walk-on — redshirt junior Zach Smith — with a scholarship for the second half of the season.