PITTSBURGH — If Pitt was going to win an ACC basketball game in the 2017-18 season, their best shot might have been Saturday afternoon against Georgia Tech.
The Panthers, playing at home, were only 5.5-point underdogs to the Yellow Jackets, who came in riding high with a three-game winning streak that included victories over Notre Dame and Miami. But Georgia Tech has also been inconsistent this season with a propensity for bad losses, and the Panthers, sandwiched between home dates against Notre Dame and No. 3 Virginia, seemed like a perfect time for the Yellow Jackets to take a night off.
Any notion of that happening was very quickly squashed, as Georgia Tech started the game on a 21-1 run and essentially coasted to a 69-54 victory.
Pitt remains a young team that has yet to put together it’s best game for 40 minutes of basketball, but the road will only get tougher going forward. Pitt is one of two ACC teams with a losing record. Wake Forest is 8-10 after losing to Duke on Saturday. Pitt will host the Demon Deacons on Feb. 21. Other than that, the next-worst overall record belongs to the Yellow Jackets, who are now 10-7.
The Panthers shouldn’t be judged on the number of wins they collect in 2017-18. There isn’t much difference between winning eight (their current total), 10 or even 12. They’re going to finish the year with a losing record, they’re not going to play in a postseason tournament and that’s basically that.
What matters, is the development of the team’s young players, and in particular, the seven freshmen brought on in the Class of 2017. But that doesn’t mean that losing every game in conference play wouldn’t have its drawbacks.
For one, Stallings is going to have to work overtime to keep his young players engaged and with their chins up and a constant energy level throughout the course of the season. A win here or there would certainly help his cause in that regard. For that reason alone, the bottom falling out on the Panthers early on Saturday was a disappointment for Stallings.
“I think there are games that you look at and say, ‘we might not be at as much of a talent disadvantage and experience disadvantage,’ but they are really good defensively and played really well offensively in the first half,” Stallings said. “To me, it was just that we did not come out to begin the game. We can’t come out like that in any game and win any of these game, we are just not set up that way right now.”
The Panthers got off to a poor start for the second straight game after doing the same against Duke on Wednesday. That made the 20-point deficit harder to stomach.
“I’m a little bit more disappointed today than I have been,” Stallings said. “I didn’t think we came out of the gate the way we need to in order to compete for a win. The last couple games, we started slowly, but this one, was a little harder to take for me. You spot a team 20, it’s going to be hard to come back from that.”
Senior guard Monty Boykins said that the Panthers were focused on starting quickly after the last game, it just didn’t transpire.
“We try to come out with the same amount of energy at the beginning of each game and it didn’t happen today for us,” Boykins said. “They jumped on us early and that set the tone for the rest of the game. You have to learn how to gain momentum at the jump and try to do everything we can to stay in the game for as long as possible.”
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
So with the Panthers coming up short in a major way at one of their focus points coming into the game, Stallings was asked if he still sees progress out of his young players.
“In general, I think the answer to that question is yes,” he said. “I think we are making progress and you can see guys getting better. Obviously, to ask me that question right now with what happened in that 40-minutes game, did not feel like there was a lot of progress made to me. But in general terms, I think you see signs of betterment here and there.”
CHANGES ON DEFENSE
One of the signs of progress for Stallings’ unit was a change made on defense. Stallings had said earlier in the year that he didn’t want to do a lot of changing of strategy to bail his team out from a bad stretch. Instead, he’d rather see his players stick with something in order to better master it, whether it was working or not.
But he did make a change to a 2-3 zone defense against the Yellow Jackets that started out cold, but tightened up considerably late in the first half and was a big reason the Panthers were able to bring the game back to within single digits.
“We have been putting a zone in here for a little bit, a press too,” Stallings said. “We started fighting and getting back into the game a little bit by pressing and playing a little bit of zone. We went back to man, back to zone and tried to switch it up to what we thought would work.”
After Georgia Tech made 11 of its first 13 shots for a ridiculous 84.6 field goal percentage, they shot just 15 of 42 (35.7 percent) the rest of the way.
“The pressure caught us a little bit off guard and we fouled them a couple times,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said. “We gave them a couple open 3’s and we just weren’t scoring.”
After a strong performance against Duke, Kene Chukwuka drew into the starting lineup again against Georgia Tech and drew the assignment of preseason all-ACC center Ben Lammers. Lammers ended up with a double-double, his seventh of the year, but most of his stats came as the game was out of hand late. He had just four points at the half.