PITTSBURGH — Pitt only made 1 of its final 15 field goal attempts in its 66-52 win against North Carolina at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday.
That hasn’t been an uncommon occurrence for the Panthers this season, as cold shooting stretches seem to be something of a hallmark of this version of the Pitt offense.
But on Saturday against North Carolina, the Panthers’ swarming defense and their scorching shooting gave them a 40-17 lead, which was the largest margin of the game that came with just over three minutes left in the first half.
The Panthers shot over 48% from the field in the first 20-minutes and 6-for-15 (40%) from 3-point range. But equally as impressive was the energy that they showed on the defensive end, that paid dividends on the offensive end. The Tar Heels coughed up 11 turnovers in the first half.
“We had a really really good first half,” head coach Jeff Capel said. “I thought our defense helped energize our offense.”
Pitt’s defense has been its strength all season. The Panthers are No. 62 in the country in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and they’re No. 12 in turnover percentage against. Pitt has secured opposing turnovers on 24.5 percent of its defensive possessions this season, which is 5 percent above the national average.
But they haven’t always turned those possessions into easy points. Pitt’s slow tempo — they’re No. 336 in the country in adjusted tempo and No. 314 in average possession length — has meant they haven’t gotten many baskets in transition despite the large number of opposing turnovers.
It wasn’t a fast-break offense on Saturday, ether. Pitt had no fast break points in the first half. But they were still able to strike before the Carolina defenders — particularly UNC’s pair of big forward — were fully set. Pitt scored 18 points off turnovers in the first 20 minutes on Saturday.
KEEPING OFFENSIVE FLOW
But in the second half, North Carolina tightens up its offense, turning the ball over just five more times, while playing a zone defense that slowed Pitt’s offense down even further. The slowed pace and the lack of transition opportunities killed all of the offensive flow that the Panthers showed in the first half.
The lack of flow led to the 1 for 15 finish. If you have followed this Pitt team, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Scoring down the stretch, especially during close games, hasn’t been the Panthers’ forte this year. In their last three ACC losses (Wake Forest, Miami, and Louisville) plus their win on Saturday, the Panthers have made only two field goals in the final three minutes of all four games combined.
Ryan Murphy, who scored 13 points on Saturday, knows that Pitt’s offensive success is going to continue to rely on their defense.
“Our offense is slowly starting to get there,” Murphy said. “Our defense has actually been pretty good.”
Xavier Johnson sees much of the same:
“(Our defense) is actually big (for our offense).”
He admitted that has wasn’t playing with the same level of focus on defense as he did last season as a freshman. But he talked with assistant coach Jason Capel before the North Carolina game, and they agreed that he needs to get back to being a pest on that end of the floor.
Johnson was just that on Saturday and was a big part of Carolina’s 16 turnovers and 22.2% shooting afternoon from 3-point range.
Jeff Capel thinks the key to turning defense into offense relies on how well his team is rebounding the basketball.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in the first half, we rebounded,” Capel said. “That’s the big thing. … We have to do it has a group. We did that in the first half, and that’s why we were able to get out in transition and get easy buckets.”
In the second half, rebounding and transition points were hard to come by for Pitt.
“We get to the second half, and I thought we played a little bit safe,” Capel said. “I wanted to continue to attack. They went zone and slowed us down a little bit – made us think. And we couldn’t get in a rhythm.”
For the entirety of the game, UNC outrebounded Pitt 47-38.
TONEY SHOWS VERSATILITY
Au’Diese Toney missed the Panthers’ loss at home against Wake Forest and their win in Chapel Hill with a left elbow injury. The team’s defensive effort failed to play up to par in each of those games, without Toney.
And it’s clear why that was the case.
“With him, it just gives us more depth,” Capel said of Toney. “He can defend multiple positions; he can defend a bigger guy – so it gives us more depth to play how we like to play.
Capel doesn’t like playing lineups that lack the kind of versatility that Toney provides.
“When we were at North Carolina, we were in foul trouble, so we had to play two bigs a little bit,” Capel said. “With what we have, that’s not something I like to do, with the makeup of the bigs that we have.”
With Toney guarding the other teams four or five-man, it also can give him an advantage when they have to step out and defend him. He can also be an elite defender against wing players, as he helped hold Louisville star Jordan Nwora to his second-lowest output of the season on Tuesday.
Toney has done some nice things offensively as of late, too. He’s averaging 9.6 points per game in his last five games.
BROWN’S BRIGHT PLAY
Another bright spot from Pitt on Saturday was the play of Terrell Brown. He didn’t miss a shot, finishing 4-for-4 from the field, including a ferocious alley-oop finish over Carolina’s Justin Pierce. Brown also added three key blocks.
“Terrell gets a shot block; it’s like a jailbreak, and everyone just sprints,” Murphy said about Brown’s presence on the defensive end.”
Brown looked comfortable shooting the mid-range shot as he has of late. He knocked in two 15-footers with a ton of confidence. Any productivity Pitt can get from their post players is crucial with the guard-driven offense.