PITTSBURGH — In Pitt’s 59-50 win against Northern Illinois on Monday night, the Huskies drilled six 3-pointers in the first half and carried a lead into the halftime break.
Eugene German, who is the leading scorer in the MAC conference, was giving the Panthers fits on the offensive end. His free-flowing offensive attack filled with drives to the hoop and deep stepback jumpers had the Pitt perimeter defenders on their heels for the first 30 minutes of the game.
Then things changed drastically. Pitt head coach Jeff Capel turned to a 2-2-1 press on the defensive end and fell back into a match-up zone in the half-court. The Huskies offense found themselves wandering for answers from that point on.
German was swarmed by Pitt defenders and was held to just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc in the second half.
The forced shots and rhythmless offense from Northern Illinois only benefited the Panthers’ chances down the stretch in a game where they were unable to find consistent contributions on the offensive end themselves.
Pitt’s stingy defense guided them to a 20-4 run in the final 8:56 of the game.
Grad transfer Eric Hamilton could feel the momentum shifting when Pitt switched to a zone, and they started cumulating defensive stops.
“One of the big things was that we got the crowd into it,” Hamilton said. “We just started getting a pep in our step and just playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
In the deciding stretch of the game, Pitt held Northern Illinois without a field goal for the final 6:35 of the game.
Capel knew coming into the game that there was a possibility of having to throw some different defensive looks at a streaky shooting team with the likes of a player like German and others that are capable of getting going on the offensive end.
“I thought us switching to zone kind of took some of (German’s) his driving opportunities away, I thought it broke their rhythm a little bit,” Capel said. “More importantly, I thought it gave us confidence; it gave us energy.”
Showing the ability to switch defenses, when you have some game pressure on you with the ability to adapt and change the vibe of the game, shows the continued maturity of the young group that Capel has early on in his second season.
“It’s something that, you know, we have and can use,” Capel said. “We feel confident and have confidence in using it. We wanted to give a different look to try to break the rhythm — and fortunately, it worked. But I tell our guys all the time that it’s not the defense that works, it’s we have to make the defense work.”
Pitt’s defense has had more ups than downs in the early stages of this season, and the numbers prove that to be true. They are holding teams to just 58.5 points per game and are only allowing their opponents to shoot 39.5 percent from the field. With several athletic wings and bigs, Pitt also has averaged 6.7 steals per game.
As offense is the much more talent-based side of the ball, Pitt can continue to control the effort and attention to detail on the other side of the ball.
“Nothing is where we want it to be (right now),” Hamilton said. “We just have to continue to work every day in practice.”