NEW YORK — Pitt looked like a different team on Tuesday in the Panthers’ 73-67 loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the consolation game of the Legends Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn after nearly getting run out of the building by Penn State on Monday.
The change came mostly in the form of two of Pitt’s seven freshman upping their game: Marcus Carr and Shamiel Stevenson.
While the team and the fans are looking for results in the final score department, some of the steps forward by the young Panthers are essential steps on the way to turning around the 1-4 start the team has made.
“There was real growth on the part of some of the guys on our team today,” Stallings said. “We didn’t do enough and we know our margin is small, but in terms of effort and in terms of energy to get the job done, what they need to do to be successful, we got a very good effort from our team today.”
Against Penn State on Monday, Carr scored nine points, had four turnovers and one assist in 23 minutes. Facing the Cowboys, Carr was better in every category. He turned the ball over just twice — one travel and one carry — despite facing an Oklahoma State defense that played a variety of traps and presses throughout the contest and, in head coach Kevin Stallings’ words, “is designed to turn you over.”
Against Penn State, Stevenson had his quietest outing as a Panther, scoring just two point and failing to grab a single rebound in 13 minutes in the post. Tuesday, Stevenson was a dynamic force, leading the Panthers on offense with 16 points on 8 of 9 shooting.
Carr and Stevenson are freshmen, and they should be expected to be able to improve their play throughout the season. But it won’t be a linear, upward path. There will be games, as on Monday, when they look very much like the freshmen that they are. There will be other games when they show glimpses of the future potential they hold.
Stallings said he couldn’t put his finger on the reason for the poor showing on Monday and the subsequent turnaround on Tuesday.
“Based on who they are, I didn’t worry about a repeat performance,” Stallings said. “I don’t know why that happened. … Of course, I’m looking for answers on what caused [Monday’s effort], because that’s not the kind of thing that should happen.
MIXING AND MATCHING
Stallings’ backcourt had a significantly different look on Tuesday, with Carr joined by Jonathan Milligan in on the floor at the same time for a majority of the game. The different rotation left Parker Stewart the odd man out, with the freshman playing in just two minutes.
“I wanted more ball-handling on the court and Marcus and Milli have been two of our best energy guys,” Stallings said. “When you come off a day when you were lacking in energy, I’m going to put the energy guys out there. Also, those two guys have been solid defensively. Nobody played well enough yesterday to warrant an automatic berth in the lineup today and so I took the two guys that could handle the ball and play with the kind of energy that we needed to play with to be successful.”
D SHOWS UP
Stallings mentioned a defensive focus in his lineup decisions, with Kene Chukwuka joining Carr, Milligan, Ryan Luther and Jared Wilson-Frame in the starting five. The focus on defense was evident from the very beginning of the game, with the Panthers playing a more aggressive, higher-energy version of their man-to-man defense.
“It was definitely the result of yesterday,” Carr said. “We talked about what we had to do to make sure it didn’t happen again. One of the main focuses that we had and talked about was energy, so we needed to come out with energy from the jump.”
The increase in energy had a dramatic effect, as the Panthers held Oklahoma State to 37.9 percent shooting, their second-best defensive performance of the season.
LEARNING TO WIN
The Panthers hung around in the second half of the game, staying within two possessions for the majority of the time. Part of the reason they could never break through was a cold afternoon from 3-point range, as Pitt finished with a 20-percent mark from beyond the arc.
They also had some self-inflicted wounds situationally. After Wilson-Frame made a 3-pointer to bring the Pitt defect to three points with 37 seconds left, Pitt set up a press to go for a steal, but Stevenson fouled before the pass on the inbounds play.
Brandon Averette made both free throws for Oklahoma State. After a Luther lay-in, Milligan fouled Kendall Smith. Smith missed the second shot, but Luther failed to box out and an offensive rebound for the Cowboys essentially sealed Pitt’s fate.
“I think that’s something that as they gain more experience, especially at crunch time like that, they’ll learn that you have to play with even more discipline and even stronger fundamentals,” Stallings said. “Literally every possession is a learning lesson for us right now. Every time out, every situation, every defense, it’s all a learning situation right now. We’ll get better.”
Pitt shot 50.9 percent from the floor while holding he Cowboys to a 37.9 mark. While Pitt was cold from 3-point range, Oklahoma State didn’t do much better at 25 percent. The Panthers had one more turnover, 14-13.
The decisive margin in the game came on the glass and particularly on the offensive glass, where the Cowboys grabbed 20 offensive rebounds. Pitt had five, giving the Cowboys 15 extra possessions.
“[Head coach Mike Boynton] always emphasizes in practice offensive rebounds and how they just kill a team,” Cowboys guard Thomas Dziagwa said. “Getting offensive rebounds is more of a mindset for us. It adds the extra possessions.”
While the Cowboys may focus on the offensive glass, it hasn’t taken much to overcome the Panthers in that regard this season. Pitt hasn’t had more offensive rebounds than any of their opponents this season. In total, they’ve given up 81 offensive rebounds while grabbing only 37. That’s a large margin to make up with other parts of the game and is the biggest single reason for Pitt’s 1-4 start.
Stallings, Carr and Stevenson broke down the loss immediately afterward. Here’s the video: