First-year head coach Jeff Capel has established an identity for his team early into his tenure. His Pitt Panthers got out to a solid 7-1 start to their season by out-hustling teams. They are, in early December, just one win away from their season total from last year and they’ve got there by playing in-your-face defense and turning that into transition offense. On Monday, they learned what happens when they take their foot off of the gas.
Pitt lost in hustle points, and ultimately lost on the scoreboard. They never established their identity and saw communication breakdowns, and a loss in 50/50 plays.
The entire game can be summed up in one play. Pitt made two straight stops and trailed 68-65 with just over one minute to go. They forced a bad shot that rimmed out towards the sideline. Xavier Johnson was the closest player to the ball but was going to let the ball bounce out of bounds. However, Keleaf Tate hustled over, grabbed the ball and threw it off Johnson, giving the Purple Eagles an extra possession.
Niagara got one more offensive rebound in that possession and wound up sinking a foul shot to extend the lead to four.
“That was one of the biggest possessions of the game,” Jeff Capel admitted. “We waited for it to go out of bounds, and they made the biggest play of the game. That play was indicative of how the whole night was for us.”
Pitt lost in points in the paint, second-chance points and rebounds. While Pitt lost on the last play of the game, scattered efforts such as the defining lost rebound late in the game added up and proved to be too much for this young team.
The team relies on three freshmen heavily in their rotation. They have a young group who was not expected to make a significant improvement on their win total from last season. The Panthers beat St. Louis in an upset and pushed a ranked Iowa group to the limit. From there, they saw a bit of a soft sandwich spot. Pitt played Duquesne on Friday in the City game and has West Virginia later this week in the much-anticipated Backyard brawl. In between was a 2-4 Niagara group without their best player.
For the young Panthers who have exceeded expectations, this was going to be a tough game for Capel and his staff to get his team up for. Capel was adamant that Niagara outplayed his team. However, he admitted that comes down him, and they should not be a team that is capable of beating Pitt.
“They were way more prepared than we were,” admitted Capel. “That’s on me; I have to do a better job of having us ready to play. We have to make sure every time we strap up that we are ready to go.”
Capel did not say his team was in a trap spot but did think his team did not bring the same energy.
“I’ve been around the road, I understand the value and importance of every game, but I didn’t do a good enough job of conveying that to our team,” said Capel.
The first year head coach has to use this game to learn as a head coach, and teach his team how to close teams out. They need to bring the same intensity night in and night out. Taking responsibility is a good sign. Now he has to show growth.
Jared Wilson-Frame taking responsibility
Capel’s team felt the lack of energy as well and knows that they should have been able to put this team away. Nobody was admitting that the spot was the reason, but they did acknowledge that they did not play their style.
“We lost this game before we stepped on the floor today,” added senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame. “Body language, focus, tension, energy, all lacking. You could see it from practice yesterday.”
Like his head coach, Wilson-Frame gave all of the credit to the execution of his opponent. However, he also said that with the talent of his group, he thinks they can compete with any team, and that certainly includes Niagara.
Wilson-Frame comes off the bench but plays over 20 minutes per game for the Panthers. He is the only senior on a team with a first-year head coach and a nucleus of young talent. He understands the position he is in, and like Capel, took full responsibility. He now has to show growth and prove himself as a leader.
“I blame myself for a lot of things that happened, and I take full blame for that loss,” stated Wilson-Frame. “I have a very important role on this team and if I don’t fulfill that we won’t see things we want to see and I won’t see things that I want to see.”
Coming off of a suspension to start his season with a new head coach it is good to see Wilson-Frame stepping up and acknowledging his responsibility on this team. However, he also knows that actions speak louder than words, and is looking to show that on Saturday.
“As much as I can say, I don’t think there’s anything I will say,” Wilson-Frame said on his message before playing backyard rival West Virginia this weekend. “We will be ready for that game. There’s not gonna be much talking just focus, and we will show up ready for that.”
Turnovers doom Panthers
The Panthers averaged 12 turnovers per game this season but committed 18 against Niagara on Monday. While that can play into the trap spot and the hustle points, Capel seems to think this has been a theme brewing over the past week or so.
Turnovers plagued them on the road in their loss to Iowa, and he was not necessarily satisfied with the win against Duquesne, despite the scoreboard.
“Turnovers have plagued us the last five halves,” Capel admitted.
We all know of “Press Virginia” and what they do to rattle teams. If the Panthers do not nip this issue in the bud, they are going to start to stack losses as the schedule gets tougher.
Toney carrying the group on the boards
If you have listened to a Jeff Capel interview this season, you know that his team needs to gang rebound. They cannot rely on somebody to carry them on the glass as they typically run small lineups.
Fortunately for them, they have gotten a surprise surge on the boards from first-year player Au’Diese Toney. Toney is 6-foot-6 but has led the team in rebounding with 6.6 per game. Toney has played small forward, stretch four, and even played a little five tonight as he once again hauled in nine boards, pacing the team.
“Au’diese had nine rebounds, the next guy had three, that’s ridiculous,” proclaimed Capel.
He once again preached gang rebounding, but at this point is living off of Toney in that area. While Toney did play a little center, it does not sound as though that will be something they continue to look to do.
Capel laughed the lineup off as his “Really small ball” lineup, and Toney shrugged it off saying that it was game flow and his teammate’s foul trouble. He also said he has not practiced in that role and was asked to step up due to the spot.
Overall, Toney was the best Panther on the court Monday.