PITTSBURGH — The monkey is off Pitt’s back.
Throughout the first part of the 2018-19 basketball season, Pitt’s players, those that participated in the Panthers’ 0-19 skid through ACC play a year ago and those that had not, had faced question after question about what happened last season.
Pitt put the last of its bad-tasting past behind it on Wednesday by beating Louisville, 89-86 in overtime.
For the Pitt freshmen and head coach Jeff Capel, it’s a chance to finally be disassociated with a past they didn’t want to inherit. For those that played in it, it was entirely something else.
“Jared [Wilson-Frame] and all the other teammates who experienced it last year were just telling us how they didn’t want to experience it again and they didn’t want anybody else to experience it,” freshman guard Trey McGowens said. “That’s not going to happen again.
“During the game, they just kept saying ‘finish.’ They talked about being in a situation a lot like that last year when they were up and then they’d come back or something would happen.”
Instead, the Panthers held on through a late Louisville charge and ended up celebrating as a team for the first time in a long time
“They were pretty excited after the game today,” McGowens said, with some understatement.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) January 10, 2019
“Tonight was huge for us,” Capel said. “I’d be lying if I tried to play it down. It was huge for us. It was huge for this program at this moment.
After Pitt lost by 25 in front of a sold-out crowd on Saturday, there may have been some weary fans that lost faith in this team.
But the group of 6,290 that showed up at the Pete on Wednesday didn’t seem to.
“It was rocking,” McGowens said. “I know we could hear them, so I know Louisville could. That’s big. … The Oakland Zoo came out and supported.”
Winning, is of course, of utmost importance for all sports teams, but for the Panthers, re-igniting that connection with the fanbase is just as important.
“I’m just happy for Pitt,” Capel said. “Our students, our crowd was amazing again tonight. For them to experience an ACC win again when it’s been so long – I think that it’s 672 days. For this program, the fans, the people that support it and love it, our Oakland Zoo, especially the sophomores, who haven’t experienced a win in the ACC and our players mainly, I’m happy for them. It’s a great lesson for our guys.”
TO THE RIM
They way the Panthers have had their success is awfully fun to watch, too. McGowens and Xavier Johnson spent most of the game driving through the Louisville defense, and taking it to the rim with athletic finishes.
“The backcourt for Pitt was phenomenal,” Louisville head coach Chris Mack said. “They had their way with us. Whether we switched, whether we hard hedged, whether we played zone, our defense was deplorable. Until our team plays with a little bit more dirt under its fingernails instead of playing the way we did tonight defensively, we’ll get more ass kickings in this league.”
It’s not that Louisville is a bad team, though they have struggled some on defense. Pitt feels like they can do that to almost anyone if they’re on their game.
“We feel like that is an advantage for us,” Capel said. “That’s a strength of ours. We’re gonna try to do some ball screen things and try to get some movement. I feel like Xavier and Trey have the ability to beat people off the bounce. It puts a lot of pressure, at times, on the defense, with what they want to do as far as their ball-screen coverage. I thought we made some good reads. I thought Trey was very aggressive in the first half out of it.”
The North Carolina loss showed how that can all fall apart, though, when Pitt can’t hit from long range. The Panthers started the Louisville game with three straight wide-open 3-point attempts that didn’t go and it looked like they may have been in for a repeat.
But McGowens knocked down a pair of 3’s from the top of the key about five minutes into the game that seemed to spark some confidence from the rest of the Panthers and cause the Louisville defense to extend, opening the Cardinals up to Pitt’s dribble-drive game.
“We didn’t shoot it well the UNC game,” McGowens said. “We had a real good shootaround, though, and it just carried over.”
Pitt squandered a 13-point lead over the last five minutes as Louisville went on a 17-4 run to tie the game. When the players gathered for the break, Capel didn’t like what he saw.
“In the huddle, our guys were dejected,” Capel said. “You could see that. I jumped on them right away. I was like, ‘We’re going to win. It’s five more minutes. We have to fight for five more minutes and we have this.”
“He saw our faces and saw that look in us that we didn’t know what was going to happen,” sophomore center Terrell Brown said. “He told us to keep a strong face, and to be confident, and that’s what we did. We did not fight for 40 minutes just to come up short. He said before there are 10 rounds in a fight, and this is the eleventh round, and he asked us if we were just going to roll over or if we were going to fight and that’s what we did.”
The overtime period didn’t start out that well for Pitt, either, with Louisville hitting a long 3-pointer on its first possession.
“For them to come right out and hit a three, that was another gut punch,” Capel said. “We got up off the canvas and we fought back.”
Fighting back was Johnson, who came right up the floor and hit a three of his own.
“I was just relaxed,” he said. “I knew something good was going to happen for us. I took the shot and it went through the hoop.”
A FOUNDATION OF TRUST
With the game tied late in regulation, and the Panthers holding the ball for a final shot, Capel could have called a timeout to set up a play.
He chose not to.
It’s not that Capel didn’t have one, he simply has a lot of faith in his players being well enough prepared to do what they need to in that moment.
His faith wasn’t necessarily rewarded, as McGowens passed up an open look to drive and lost his handle on the ball, squandering Pitt’s final scoring opportunity. But the idea that Capel trusts his players is part of the foundation of this team.
“We knew they would make runs, Capel said. “I was proud because we responded every time. They cut it to five, we got it back to 10, they went on a run there at the end and I second-guess myself at the end of regulation.”
It was the same story with his young guards in foul trouble. Both Johnson and McGowens had two fouls in the first half and both stayed in the game. Johnson eventually picked up his third and was removed, but Capel showed faith in his players by leaving them in the game.
“I’m not one of these coaches that believes if a guy picks up two in a half that you sit him for the rest of the half,” Capel said. “We try to work on different situations in practice. I trust my guys in that situation to not do it. It worked with Trey, it did not work with Xavier. But at that moment, Trey was playing so well. I trusted him in that situation to not pick up a third.”
Capel didn’t exactly bat 1.000 on those moves, but he’s building a foundation with these players. Yes, he badly wants to win every game, but he also wants to establish a culture of trust and faith that will ultimately lead to more and even greater wins.
He could have lost to Louisville because of his faith in the players, but the relationships being built will be worth it.