PITTSBURGH — Has there been a more frustrating season of Pitt basketball in recent memory?
That’s an unusual way to start the coverage of an impressive 80-66 Panthers win over No. 17 Florida State Saturday, but that’s the story here, isn’t it?
Once again, Pitt proved that when they play to their potential for 40 minutes, they’re capable of beating just about anyone in the country, and their quality wins over teams such as Marquette, Maryland, Virginia and now Florida State prove that.
But more often than not, the Panthers have found themselves on the other side of that equation, failing to execute at a high level offensively — and particularly defensively — for long enough to defeat the likes of Clemson, Miami, NC State and Virginia Tech.
Up and down. Jekyll and Hyde. Whatever you want to call it, the Panthers have been maddeningly frustrating for their faithful and themselves this season, and instead of sending the Panthers off to the finish of the regular season with three of four on the road, their just-completed three-game home stand leaves the taste of “if only” in the mouths of many.
Kevin Stallings has used the “phrase margin for error” many times this season, and it’s true that Pitt’s is razor-thin. Regardless how much or little he’s used his bench, Stallings has gotten next-to-no scoring from players outside the starting lineup since Ryan Luther’s injury.
As a team that relies on a lot of jump shooting, they are susceptible to the occasional cold night and bad loss as a result. They also will have to wear a 10-point run at some point in almost every game, as the Panthers don’t play a ton of defense, especially when they’re missing.
There’s a moxie that needs to come with a team like that, and that’s one of the things that the Panthers have been missing. Stallings has also been critical of the way his team deals with adversity and that’s part of it. That opponent run is coming. Stallings knows it. The players know it. You and I know it.
But all too often, the Pitt players have let the fact that they’ve let an opponent back into a game spiral into losing that game. It happened as recently as Tuesday against Virginia Tech. Saturday against Florida State, something different happened.
The Seminoles used a 10-0 run to get the game to two points at 6:19. They had all the momentum. Instead of collapsing, the time, the Panthers held firm. Chris Jones made a contested shot, Michael Young grabbed a rebound. Sheldon Jeter made a corner 3-pointer — part of a 29-point night. All of the sudden, Pitt was back to a seven-point lead. Then, they built on it, getting to the line and making eight straight free throws down the stretch.
“We started bucking down defensively and they couldn’t stop us offensively,” Jeter said. “We made big shots and Mike and Jamel [Artis] were getting to the foul line. We just showed our composure really and kept it together.”
What was the difference, though? Why did it take until game 27, with their NCAA Tournament hopes all but evaporated, for the Panthers to find that kind of performance?
“We knew that we gave [Tuesday’s game] away. It wasn’t that they took it. We gave it away,” Jeter said. “There was no special game plan. We just decided that enough was enough and to really fight for 40 minutes. We did that.”
Jeter’s words validate those of Stallings after the Virginia Tech loss — that effort, especially on defense, has been the thing holding the team back. Cameron Johnson agreed.
“[It was] energy and effort,” Johnson said. “We were more focused on attacking them. We got to the line a lot at the end. We only had five foul shots against Virginia Tech. That’s something that really came up big for us.”
It’s fair to ask whether the blame for the lack of effort should lie at the coach or the senior-laden team, but all parties involved are on the same page that Pitt can beat just about anyone if they go out there and play the way they’re capable of.
“We can play against any team in the ACC,” Artis said. “It just depends on whether or not we show up to play that day. Today we showed up and played well from the tip-off. If we show up to play, I think we can play with any team in the league.”
Dealing in reality, any chance at an NCAA Tournament bid would require a long ACC Tournament run, beating multiple teams that the Panthers would be undergo against. Jeter said they’re not particularly concerned by the doubts of those outside the program when it comes to their chances.
“We’re playing to get into the [NCAA] Tournament,” he said. “We still believe in each other and the team. It doesn’t matter if other people don’t believe in us. We believe in ourselves and we believe that we can still make it. We haven’t given up hope, or said we’ll go play in the NIT [Tournament]. We still believe we can get into the [NCAA] Tournament.”
Maybe they’ve found the attitude they need, after all. They’ll get the chance to prove it very quickly when they visit Wake Forest on Wednesday.