PITTSBURGH — Let’s not make any mistakes about it: the officials blew the most pivotal call in Pitt’s 73-68 loss to Louisville on Tuesday night.
Pitt forward Terrell Brown’s swatted put-back attempt connected with all ball, even though he was behind Louisville’s Malik Williams when he made it, and the over-the-back call that help the Cardinals salt away their victory wasn’t one bit deserved.
You don’t have to take my word for it.
Jon Rothstein called it one of the top three worst calls of the season and “an abomination.”
Just re-watched the play three times that cost Pitt tonight at the end of its loss to Louisville.
Easily among the Top 3 worst calls I've seen this season.
An absolute abomination.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 15, 2020
Kyle Boone of CBS Sports called it “so, so bad.”
Here's video of that controversial call in the Louisville-Pitt game. Pitt ties it in OT at 70-all with a tip-in, but the officials wave it off and instead call a foul … on Pitt. So so bad. pic.twitter.com/ouD2XCZ4Fz
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) January 15, 2020
Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News said you “won’t see many worse calls,” while also correctly pointing out that the official with better position on the play did not call a foul.
Won’t see many worse calls than the one that cost Pitt tonight. Ref who didn’t have a view, was out of position, called over the back on a play with zero contact. Baseline ref saw the play, didn’t budge.
— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) January 15, 2020
So yeah, it was bad.
But it sure wasn’t surprising. Because the officiating crew, particularly referee Mike Stephens, made it crystal clear that this game was going to be about them from the very beginning.
There were a combined 45 fouls and 48 free throws in a game that was not even the slightest bit physical. Chris Mack was given a technical foul while the official that called it was 80 feet away from him. Au’Diese Toney and Williams were given a double technical for what amounted to bumping into one another after a whistle.
If the fans in the stands weren’t crystal clear that the officials had decided the game was going to be all about them, they erased all doubt by singling out one member of Pitt’s jam-packed Oakland Zoo and throwing him out of the game in the first half.
There were 3,000 students screaming everything there is to scream for the entire game and that one guy crossed the line? Give me a break.
The fact that Stephens is a veteran official with big-game experience makes it even worse. Simply put, this game was a pox on college basketball officiating and each official that worked it should be thoroughly embarrassed by the outcome.
But let’s also not lay anything additional at the feet of the men in stripes. Bad call or not, they didn’t cost Pitt the game.
For one, even if Brown’s tip-in was allowed to count with 21 seconds to play, Louisville would have had the ball with 21 seconds to come up with a way to solve Pitt’s defense. That’s not a sure thing, but I think a betting man would take the No. 11 team in the country with the No. 4 overall player in the country in that situation.
Even if Pitt came up with a stop, all that was going to do was send the game into a second overtime.
But Pitt’s chances were pretty slim there, too. The Panthers were playing their second game in 72 hours, with travel home from Miami in between. Brown and Au’Diese Toney — two of the seven men in Pitt’s rotation — were playing with four fouls.
Jeff Capel said after the game that he did not believe fatigue was an issue, but give Louisville’s much deeper bench another 10 minutes and it very well could have been.
Chris Mack had three top-100 freshman in his 2019 recruiting class and none of them even start. Pitt isn’t going to win a war of attrition with that team, at least not at this stage in its program’s development.
No, if Pitt was going to win this game, it needed to be in regulation, and they certainly had plenty of chances to do so.
They led by seven with 3:11 to play, but then things started to fall apart. Brown stuffed Fresh Kimble for a block, but Williams got the offensive rebound, put it back and Brown was called for a foul, meaning he had to play all of overtime with four.
That one he earned, and it was an extremely ill-advised foul to take.
Brown then missed a jumper on the following possession, Kimble hit a 3-pointer, and suddenly, Pitt was leading by just one.
They still had chances to win, though. Xavier Johnson missed a runner and Trey McGowens was called for a foul, letting Louisville tie the game with the clock stopped.
On Pitt’s final possession, the ball came to Ryan Murphy, who couldn’t pull the trigger on an open 3-pointer. Instead, Pitt settled for a wild McGowens heave that was off the mark.
Louisville finished regulation on a 7-0 run. Pitt finished regulation by missing eight of its last nine shots, with only McGowens’ banked-in 3-pointer keeping Pitt from letting the game slip away in regulation.
“We fought against one of the better teams in the country, had a chance to win in regulation and put our self in a position to have a chance in overtime,” Capel said. “Unfortunately, we came up short.”
GETTING OFF THE ROLLER COASTER
But late-game let-down aside, the Pitt team that showed up to play on Tuesday night led the No. 11 team in the country for over 30 minutes and before taking them to overtime, severely limited leading scorer Jordan Nwora and generally looked every bit the equal of one of the very best teams in the ACC.
That’s a far cry from the team the sleepwalked through a loss at Miami on Sunday.
Pitt has shown that it’s capable of playing with and beating the best teams in the country. The Panthers have also shown they’re capable of losing to just about anybody.
The big step Pitt needs to take is adding consistency to its game.
“I think we’re getting better,” Capel said “It doesn’t show all the time. We have to become consistent. That’s the thing we’re striving to become. We’re not there yet.”
Pitt is still a young team with plenty of room to grow, with four starters that are freshmen or sophomores. Before they can truly compete on an even playing field with their ACC brethren, they need players that have the level of experience of a Nwora or a Williams.
This is a loss that stings as Pitt had a chance for a statement victory that it let slip away, but the performance on the whole should be more of a reminder of how far Pitt has come than how far they still have to go.
Brown was strong off the bench once again. McGowens was dominant. Toney has turned into one of the ACC’s better wing defenders. Things are looking up at Pitt, even with two straight losses.