PITTSBURGH — If there’s one big takeaway from Pitt’s 69-60 loss to West Virginia on Saturday, it’s that maybe, just maybe, the Panthers fanbase might be falling back in love with its basketball team.
The Oakland Zoo, which to this point this season has more closely resembled a petting zoo, roared like it hasn’t in quite some time as Pitt climbed back from an 18-point halftime deficit to bring the game to within one in the second half.
The building rocked, the players felt it, the coaches felt it. It wasn’t like the Pete of old, especially with the middle and upper decks conservatively 50/50 split between Pitt and West Virginia fans. But much like the effort of the team on the floor, it was an important step forward.
“Obviously, there was a lot more people there today, but the Zoo always does a good job of getting us that momentum,” forward Ryan Luther said. “I definitely thought they were a big part of helping us cut that lead.”
The rivalry game was mostly only one in the stands, as none of the players on the two teams have ever played each other. But the hot, 50/50 crowd helped provide a big-game environment. All involved for Pitt could probably do without the 50/50 part of the equation, but the players want that atmosphere back more often.
“These are the kind of games that I really live for when I play basketball,” freshman point guard Marcus Carr said. “I would hope that this game showed the fans that we can play basketball at a high level and that they will come out to support us in the rest of the games this season, because tonight, we showed a big step and progress in our team. I think it also shows that their support makes a difference in the game.”
“The atmosphere was great,” Luther added. “Obviously, we knew they were going to have a lot of people there, just because they’re right down the road. I think it was pretty awesome and I thought both teams played hard.”
Particularly when Pitt was making its second-half run, Stallings thought the fans made a difference on the floor.
“That’s why they call it a home-court advantage,” he said. “That’s what a home-court advantage is. They give you that. I didn’t take Ryan and Shamiel (Stevenson) out in the second half. You really can’t do that if you don’t have something helping you.”
SLOW START / HALFTIME CHANGES
Pitt lost the game, largely because of a disastrous start. In the first five minutes of the game, the Panthers didn’t make a field goal other than a goaltending call while the Zoo held on to its scraps of newspaper confetti so long it’s a wonder they didn’t all leave with ink-stained hands.
Luther had two fouls before the Panthers made a basket, chants of “Let’s Go Mountaineers” — along with other, less savory ones — rang out from the upper levels. It was a complete and total disaster.
Yet Pitt’s freshmen landed on their feet in order to rally in the second half.
“I couldn’t be any more proud of my team, their effort and how hard they fought,” Stallings said. “We got our butts kicked in the first half. Guys of lesser character would put their head between their legs and think the night was over, but there was none of that in them. Not at halftime, not at any point. I couldn’t have asked any more out of them than they gave.”
West Virginia shot 48.5 percent from the floor in the first half and 42.3 percent in the second half. Pitt shot 44 percent in the second half. In the first half, Pitt shot 5 of 22 (22.7 percent). In a game with fairly even rebounds and turnovers, that was the tipping point in West Virginia’s favor.
“I don’t like to say this very often, but I really thought the difference was that they made shots and we didn’t,” Stallings said. “If halftime hadn’t come, we might have died on the vine out there a little bit. I’ve been saying this all along: they’re a great group to coach. … I call it competitive character. I think their competitive character is very, very high. That’s what allows you, when you’re getting your butt kicked at halftime by 18, to come back and have a chance to win.”
Stallings didn’t even take credit for a fiery halftime speech to lead the second-half turnaround.
“I didn’t say jack at halftime I don’t normally say. It’s them,” he said. “They believed that they were going to get back in it and have a chance to win. They believed that and you could see that they believed it. It wasn’t fake, it wasn’t bravado, they thought we were going to have a chance to win the game.”
West Virginia’s press was a fairly frightening proposition for the Panthers coming into the game. Pitt had turned the ball over at an alarming rate over its first nine games and West Virginia is one of the top turnover teams in the country. Pitt finished with 14 while allowing nine.
“If you told me we were getting 14 turnovers, I’d have taken it,” Stallings said.
“We did a better job, especially in the second half of taking care of the ball,” freshman point guard Marcus Carr said. “I don’t think we turned the ball over on the press that much. Some of them were just a little forced.”
BATTLE ON THE BOARDS
Pitt hasn’t out-rebounded many teams this year and has been frequently given up too many offensive rebounds. Against WVU, they got more than they gave by an 11-8 margin. It was the second straight time Pitt had more offensive boards — and the second time all season.
They also did it while Luther, the team’s top rebounder, spent much of the first half in foul purgatory. Luther was able to rebound for his fourth career double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
“I’ve got to be a little bit smarter at the beginning of games,” Luther said. “I can’t put my team in that position. There’s a difference between playing hard and going for rebounds and getting some cheap fouls. After that, everyone competing. The guys that went in — Peace (Illegomah) and Terrell (Brown) — they held their own at there. … When I got out there, I just tried to play normal and play without fouling while still being aggressive.”
Luther wasn’t the only one who ran into foul trouble. Wesley Harris fouled out for West Virginia, while Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., and Sagaba Konate all played with four fouls. Carter’s foul trouble coincided with Pitt’s second-half run.
“I liked it better when Carter wasn’t in there,” Stallings said. “I really enjoyed that segment of the game.”
West Virginia finished the game in a 1-3-1 zone, which helped protect its players in foul trouble at the expense of leaving Pitt with some open 3-pointers. But the Panthers went 4 of 15 from 3-point range in the second half.