PITTSBURGH — Pitt has now played Syracuse twice this season. The first was the start of the slide that nearly derailed the entire campaign. The second may be a sign that the Panthers have turned a corner as Pitt beat the Orange, 80-75 at the Petersen Events Center Saturday afternoon.
When Pitt went to Syracuse on Jan. 7, the Panthers were flying high. They had just beaten No. 11 Virginia and had come within a hair of upsetting Notre Dame in the ACC opener. Everything the team had set out to accomplish in the 2016-17 season was still possible.
Pitt waltzed into the Carrier Dome and got exposed, with the Orange handing them a 77-66 beating that wasn’t as close as the final score. That loss was the start of an eight-game losing streak that included a 55-point home loss to Louisville and failures against ACC lesser lights NC State and Clemson.
The goals that Pitt came into the season with slipped away. There was criticism of the players by the coach, the coach by the fans. After dropping a game to Clemson at the Petersen Events Center, the Panthers were staring at the meat of their ACC schedule — an unthinkably difficult road trip to North Carolina, Duke and Boston College. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim understands that feeling playing in what might be the best college basketball conference ever assembled, top to bottom.
“If you let a few games get away from you, you’re behind the 8-ball real fast,” he said.
But something changed on that road trip. Even though the team lost two close games against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, they played better and they played harder according to head coach Kevin Stallings.
“Our spirits have been up since the loss to North Carolina,” forward Michael Young said. “We liked the way we played in that game and the Duke game. We didn’t come out with the wins, but that’s what this league is about. … From those two games, we built. We built on how hard we played, how hard we concentrated and our desire to win, and we brought it in to Boston College and this game.”
So what changed? There have been some tactical changes, with the emergence of reserve center Rozelle Nix and Young increasing his focus on the inside. But the biggest change has bene one of mindset. That came from hitting rock bottom and doing some soul searching.
“When you’re at the bottom of the league, the last team, no one’s taking you seriously,” Young said. “You get blown out in consecutive games in a row. That hits your pride. You’ve got to man up or shut up.”
Now with the back-to-back wins under their belt, the team is back to feeling like they can accomplish the goals they set out to. To a man, the players made available to the media said that they feel like the team can run the table and make some noise in the postseason. Stallings wasn’t ready to go quite that far, but he is pleased with the progress the team has made.
“I feel like we’re playing harder and competing harder,” he said. “We’re playing more together. You can’t argue with 25 assists on 26 baskets. There’s some team play going on.”
In the game at Syracuse, Pitt was out of it before things even got started. The Orange had put up a big lead early in the first half and was able to sit on it the rest of the game. Stallings has been critical of his team’s ability to overcome adversity at times, so getting a good start was crucial.
“Last time, we came out really slow and sluggish,” Jeter said. “They jumped on us and got like a 22-point lead. It was just that and be physical, continue to do the things that were working for us tonight. But the biggest thing thing was to start strong.”
“I though [the good start] was critical,” Stallings said. You can get the deja vu thing in your head if you’re not careful. We didn’t get out to a great start because we couldn’t guard them defensively. They had 17 points in the first 8 minutes. But then we started taking away their 3’s. I thought that was the big key to the game.”
Syracuse finished 6 of 20 from beyond the arc, but were just 1 of 8 in the first half.
When a team plays a 2-3 zone, there are several ready-made options to attempt to defeat it. The short corner shot. Passes from the foul line. Simply shooting right over the top of it. The latter is the tactic the Panthers took in the first half, as they went 5 of 11 from beyond the arc, four of which coming off the hands of Cameron Johnson. “The one guy we were really worried about was Johnson,” Boeheim said. We wanted to get up on him and we lost him.”
Once Johnson got hot, the Syracuse defense had to get out to the wing even more aggressively, opening things up inside for Young, who had 20 and Sheldon Jeter, who scored 14.
“When Cam was hitting those 3’s, it extended the zone out more,” Jeter said. “That way, when they’d throw it to me in the high post, I had two or three dump offs to Mike. [Cam’s shooting] is what really helped open that up.”
Pitt vs. Syracuse highlights
Kevin Stallings Postgame
Michael Young, Sheldon Jeter and Cam Johnson Postgame