WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The basketball game played inside Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday night was unpleasant and exhausting.
But after nearly 40 minutes of grinding and struggling, Pitt was in a position to win. And that triumph would’ve snapped a five-game losing streak and it would have given the Panthers a victory in a true road game for the first time in nearly two years.
All Pitt had to do was defend, box-out and stop Wake Forest freshman Jaylen Hoard from pulling off an impersonation of Lorenzo Charles.
That, apparently, was too much to ask.
“We just didn’t rebound,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, visibly frustrated, said after the game. “We forced a very tough shot, a long shot. I have to watch the tape, but if I’m a betting man, we stood and watched instead going to pursue the ball.”
Jaylen Hoard was in the right place at the right time to send it to OT!
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) February 6, 2019
Hoard was left unmarked just before the buzzer sounded for the end of regulation. He caught a missed three-pointer from a teammate and guided it into the basket to tie the game. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons pulled away in overtime to take a 78-76 win.
All Pitt was left with was a bad taste its mouth, feelings of regret and thoughts of what could have been.
“Heartbreaking loss for us,” Capel said. “We did not get off to a good start in the second half and we dug ourselves a hole. I was proud of how we fought and we put ourselves in a position at the end of regulation where we had an opportunity, but we couldn’t come up with that one stop. We couldn’t get a rebound. They made a big-time play and scored.”
This bottom-of-the-ACC-barrel match-up featured two teams looking to snap five-game losing streaks. Wake Forest made plays when it needed to, connected on most of its free throw attempts, won the rebounding battle and was led by a team-effort that featured four players scoring in double-digits.
Hoard went off for 19 points, 17 rebounds and four assists. Teammates Brandon Childress — who was in a slump, shooting just 20 percent from the floor over his past four games — had 18 points, six assists and four rebounds.
“Honestly, the coaches did a good job on the scouting report. The players just didn’t follow through with it,” Pitt freshman Xavier Johnson said. “Some of their best players got off. It’s us players. We’re not executing.”
Johnson led Pitt with 23 points, nine assists and six rebounds.
Rebounding a big problem
Johnson, the team’s 6-foot-3 point guard, was second on the team in rebounding Tuesday. Only Malik Ellison, a 6-foot-6 wing, had more boards, finishing with eight.
Pitt lost the overall rebounding battle 48-35.
“We got out-rebounded,” Johnson said. “That was the main thing that lost us the game.”
The final play of regulation to put a spotlight on Pitt’s woes on the glass, but they’ve been a problem all season and are often a deciding factor on whether the Panthers win or lose.
Pitt is now 5-8 in games when it loses the rebounding battle. When they match their opposition on the glass or out-rebound them, the Panthers are 7-3. However, in both of Pitt’s ACC wins this year — against Florida State and Louisville — they lost the rebounding battle. FSU edged them by one while the Cardinals had 10 more.
“Again, our inability to rebound,” Capel said. “(Wake Forest) had 18 offensive boards. Our two biggest guys had one defensive rebound between them. That’s difficult. We have to understand the importance of every play.”
Terrell Brown, Pitt’s tallest player at 6-foot-10, started and played 17 minutes. He finished the game with zero points on zero-of-five shooting, two turnovers, one assist, one steal and just two offensive rebounds.
Pitt’s next tallest player, 6-foot-9 Kene Chukuwa, played 27 minutes, had six points on nine shots, four rebounds and a block.
Simply put: Pitt will need more from its big men to win games in the ACC.
“It’s all on the players right now,” said grad transfer guard Sidy N’Dir. “It’s us. We got a problem. The coaches aren’t on the court, blocking shots, boxing out or anything for us. It’s us.”
McGowens in a funk?
Pitt freshman guard Trey McGowens seems to be struggling midway through the season.
After a stretch of six games from Dec. 20 through Jan. 14 where he was averaging 21.1 points per-game, the South Carolina native has just one double-digit scoring game since.
In that time — the last six games — McGowens is shooting just 28.8 percent from the floor. He’s also had 20 turnovers and 22 personal fouls over those last six games.
Despite starting Tuesday night, he played just 14 minutes and finished with five points on three shots, one rebound and one steal.
Pitt is typically successful this season when McGowens plays well. In games where McGowens scores 15 points or more, the Panthers are 5-2. In games where he scores 10 points or less, they are 4-5, but all four of those victories came against mid-major teams (VMI, North Alabama, Saint Louis and Maryland Eastern Shore).
Emotional return for Capel
Coming back to Winston-Salem and Wake Forest University brought up old memories for Pitt’s head coach.
With the Demon Deacons is where his father, the late Jeff Capel Jr., began his career as a college coach as an assistant for three seasons on Bob Staak’s staff. He then went on to be the head coach at Division II Fayetteville State, North Carolina A&T and Old Dominion before being an NBA assistant in Charlotte and Philadelphia.
“It was a little bit (emotional), to be honest with you. I didn’t think it would be, because I’ve coached here when I was at Duke,” Capel said. “But it was a little bit different today, a little bit nostalgic as we drove up. I did feel a little bit of an emotion because this is where he got his start in college… Wake will always hold a special place in my family’s heart because this is a place that gave my dad an opportunity that believed in him on a collegiate level.”
Capel Jr. died in 2017 at the age of 64 after a battle with ALS.
Players taking responsibility
The game against Wake wasn’t all bad for Pitt. The Panthers started well, taking an 8-0 lead after tip-off, and fought back after trailing by as many as eight points to take a lead with under a minute to play in the fourth quarter.
Pitt’s defense was solid too, as the Panthers forced 18 Demon Deacons’ turnovers, blocked four shots, had nine steals and held Wake Forest to a 26 percent shooting percentage in the first half.
And the loss has also led the players to take responsibility for how they have been playing. Both Johnson and N’Dir — who finished with 15 points — put the blame on the players, as a collective unit, after the game.
“We have a problem. We have a hard time following the game-plan right now and executing on offense or defense,” N’Dir said. “Nobody is really focused right now and that’s the players’ fault. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s ego problems or something like that. I don’t know. We’re just not doing the stuff we’re supposed to do to win.”
Said Capel: “We need everyone present with us all the time and focusing on how to win and ‘What do I have to do to win?’ instead of ‘I’m not playing well’ or ‘I can’t hit a shot’ or ‘I’m not getting a foul’ or ‘I’m not getting the ball’ or ‘coach doesn’t believe in me.’
“Those are things that, to be quite frank, losers do. That’s what we are right now. We have to change it… We have to do it together.”