NEW YORK — In the final game of the 2017-18 Pitt basketball season, the Panthers gave perhaps their best effort.
Pitt was facing Notre Dame, a team that had just beaten them by 17 points seven days prior. The Fighting Irish, boosted by the return of star forward Bonzie Colson, needed a dominant win to attempt to lock down an NCAA Tournament bid.
The venue was Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where Pitt had come earlier in the season and laid an egg against Penn State in embarrassing fashion and followed that up with a loss to Oklahoma State.
The Panthers had just finished an 0-18 season in conference play, the worst in program history and most of the talk the week leading up to the game was how long after the loss it would take athletic director Heather Lyke to fire Kevin Stallings.
At tip-off, the Panthers were 17 point underdogs.
In the first half, Notre Dame showed why they’re being considered for the field of 68, with Colson and junior Rex Pflueger leading the way. Pitt’s offense, always reliant on 3-point shot, had gone cold. The Irish started the game on a 7-0 run and led by 12 at halftime.
If there was ever a team, in an sport that could be forgive for folding up shop and taking a loss, it would have been the Panthers. They didn’t.
In the second half, there were more difficulties. Both regular big men, Terrell Brown and Kene Chukwuka, got themselves into foul trouble and eventually fouled out. Notre Dame spent the final 13 minutes of the game in the bonus. Pitt still came back.
Playing four guard and 6-foot-6 forward Shamiel Stevenson, the Panthers clawed their way back into the game. The 3-point shots started falling. Marcus Carr was driving the lane. The Irish were off their game and making unforced errors.
With 22 seconds left, senior guard Matt Farrell made one of those, a badly short 3-point shot taken with time left on the clock. Carr established position in front of Colson under the hoop. The rebound was long. Carr backed into Colson, who jumped for the ball. The Notre Dame big man crashed on top of the Pitt point guard as Carr snagged the ball. The referee’s whistle blew: foul on Carr.
A bad break, probably. It was a 50-50 call at best. The straw that broke the camel’s back, certainly, as the Panthers’ comeback finally collapsed under the weight of its impossible odds.
For the Panthers, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been — and what may lie ahead.
“We had all the faith in the world we were going to win this game,” said point guard Jonathan Milligan, the only senior that played in the game for Pitt. “We’ve been talking about it since we played them last time. We were like ‘we can get these guys.’ It hurts, but the future is bright.”
For freshman guard Parker Stewart, it was more about making a statement. There was no quit these Panthers.
“That’s one thing we didn’t do all year,” he said. “Every time we went out there, we played as hard as we could. We competed every time. We never quit, no matter what our record was. We came out and competed as hard as we could each game.”
Will Pitt’s performance against Notre Dame be enough to save the job of head coach Kevin Stallings? That remains to be seen.