SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In Pitt’s pregame shootaround at the Carrier Dome on Tuesday, freshman point guard Parker Stewart wasn’t necessarily making all of his shots. But he had a look in his eye that caught the notice of head coach Kevin Stallings.
“I watched him pretty closely today and I thought he had the look the look that I wish every single one of my players had every time we come into a shootaround,” Stallings said. “You could tell he was energized about playing. He was anticipating a good night.”
The anticipated good night came to fruition, as Stewart shot 7 of 13 from 3-point range, setting a new program high in 3-point field goals made for a freshman and setting his own personal best with 23 points.
The hot night from Stewart wasn’t enough to help the Panthers overcome the Orange and Pitt lost its sixth straight conference game, 59-45.
But that doesn’t take away from the performance of Stewart, who has always been noted as a dangerous 3-point shooter, but had yet to take over a game in the fashion that he did.
“It’s really impressive,” Stallings added. “Parker has played better on a consistent basis, maybe than anybody on our team since league play began.”
In conference play, Stewart has scored 74 points over six games, one more than DeJuan Blair did in his record-breaking freshman season of 2007-08. But Blair was dominating people physically at a young age. The 6-foot-5, 190 pound Stewart is just leaning on his shooting skill, and doing it in a building and against a defense that are notoriously tough to figure out.
The Carrier Dome is an indoor football field. When Syracuse plays basketball games in the building, they lay the floor across one end zone and put up temporary bleachers at about the 20-yard line. That means that as players shoot from the corners, instead of the typical backdrop of fans in stands, they can see all the way to the far reaches of the building.
It’s enough to throw off many shooters, and that doesn’t even begin to take account for Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, that head coach Jim Boeheim has perfected for years. Pitt hasn’t seen much zone this year, and it certainly hasn’t seen any zone played at the level of Syracuse.
But even in a quirky building, against a new defense, Stewart just went out there and had the best game of his young career.
“That’s Parker,” sophomore forward Kene Chukwuka said. “He can shoot to heck out that ball. I mean, we see it every day of practice. I see it every day when we shoot around after the practice. So, it’s nothing new.”
The hot night started back in shootaround, when Stallings noticed Stewart’s approach to figuring out a new challenge.
“When we first walked into the gym, most of the team had never played here, so, before we even shot around, we were looking around at the arena,” Stewart said. “When you’re shooting, you can see all the way back to the other side, where they play football. It’s kind of tough, but I just tried to keep my eyes on the rim while I was shooting the ball.”
If only it was as easy as he made it sound. A year ago, Stallings brought four seniors into the Carrier Dome, all of whom had played there before and the Panthers shot a hair over 20 percent in the first half and got run out of the building.
Stewart, on the other hand, was shot out of cannon. He made two 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game and was well on his way to the team record.
“I hit a couple early and that kind of got me going,” Stewart said.” As a shooter, once you get a few, you kind of starting feeling good.”
Stewart continues to be the highlight of a moribund start to ACC play for the Panthers, but as far as signs of hope for the future go, a freshman guard dropping seven 3’s on the Orange in his Carrier Dome debut is a pretty solid one.
The reason Pitt wasn’t able to win the game, was that while Stewart was laughing at the common pitfall of first-time performers in a tricky venue, the rest of the Panthers were wallowing in it.
Terrell Brown was 2 for 9, Marus Carr was 0 for 6 and Jared Wilson-Frame was 1 for 6, as three of the Panthers’ most important offensive pieces combined to shoot 14.3 percent from the floor.
“I thought our attack was actually pretty good,” Stallings said. “I thought Jared got some good looks. I thought Marcus got a couple really good looks and they didn’t go in. … We had to make shots. We have to shoot the ball well in order to be successful.”
What Stallings was less pleased about was the Panthers’ 18 turnovers. From the season opener against Navy right throught, Pitt has shown a troubling propensity to take poor care of the basketball.
The Orange ended up with 16 points off turnovers compared to Pitt’s six, one of the few places the Panthers were dominated statistically.
“We just didn’t take good enough care of the ball to win on the road and that seems to be a little bit of a problem for us,” Stallings said. “It doesn’t really matter what the defense is, it can be zone or man, we turn it over too much.”
Carr sat out most of the second half in foul trouble, another concerning trend. He had three turnovers, but also had four assists, and the offense was less effective without him in the game.
“It hurt us not having Marcus, not that he was all that great when he was in there, but he certainly is able to organize and do things for us that other guys can’t do,” Stallings said.
In the second half, Syracuse started to extend its zone in an effort to rein in Stewart. That should have made them vulnerable to high-low post attacks with Chuwuka and Brown. But that offensive attack never materialized. Chukwuka finished with six points and Brown with eight.
“It was long dudes,” Chukwuka said. “It was hard to get it into high post to beat the zone, so it was kind of like what I expected and what they had told me, but it’s a little different when you see it for yourself.”
NO MARGIN FOR ERROR
Pitt doesn’t have enough talent to have things go wrong and still be in a position to win many games. The Panthers played the Orange tight, with a four-point game late in the second half.
But they needed a post presence, or another inside scorer, or just to take better care of the basketball and play slightly tighter defense while they weren’t scoring. Instead, Pitt let what was a very close game throughout slip into yet another laugher by the end.
“Unfortunately for us right now, in order to have a chance to win, all of our cylinders have to fire on the same night,” Stallings said. “We didn’t have enough of our main guys going.”