PITTSBURGH – This season, Pitt has developed quite a habit for digging itself into self-inflicted holes that are too deep to escape from.
Remember the first Miami loss – when the Panthers allowed a 16-0 run to begin the game, then tied the score at 18, then fell behind by 20 in the second half before cutting the deficit to four points, 51-47, in the final stages of regulation?
Or the Syracuse loss – when the Panthers trailed by 16 points with 9:20 to play, trimmed the gap to three with 33 seconds left but couldn’t finish at the end?
Or the Duke loss – when a 23-8 second half scoring run brought the Panthers within three points of the lead (68-65) with 4:26 remaining before the Blue Devils settled down to spoil Au’Diese Toney’s career night?
Or how about the recent setback at Virginia Tech – when the Panthers came back from a 19-point deficit to trail by six points, 59-53, with 3:21 left?
Unfortunately, it happened again on Saturday.
You can add Pitt’s 59-56 loss to Virginia as the latest in a long line of comebacks that fell short in ACC play. In the span of two minutes, the Panthers managed to climb out of a 13-point hole with 3:50 to play and put itself in a position to win. Trey McGowens had a chance to give Pitt the lead with five seconds left, but his contested 3-point attempt – a questionable shot selection – clanked off the left side of the rim. Then, Ryan Murphy had a chance to tie the game on at the buzzer, but didn’t get his shot off in time.
Close … but not close enough. Same story, different day.
“I thought we did some really good things in this game and to be in a position to have a chance to win with under a minute left was a position that we like to be in,” said Jeff Capel after the game. “But, we have to be able to capitalize.”
Pitt weathered a slow start and trailed by just two points at halftime, albeit a six-minute scoring drought to begin the second half allowed Virginia to build its double-digit lead.
Ah, scoring droughts, another nagging habit of Pitt’s young and inexperienced group.
“We seem to have (scoring droughts) every game, and it’s frustrating,” said Capel. “It’s frustrating for all of us. I don’t have an answer for it.”
It wasn’t until the final four minutes that the Panthers, led by inspired play from Xavier Johnson, ignited to make the game a game again. They forced some timely turnovers – totaling 16 for the game – and raced out in transition, which led to easy baskets with Virginia’s stymying defense out of position. Had the Panthers done more of that earlier, things would’ve been a lot easier for them down the stretch.
“We were the aggressors,” said Johnson, who finished with a team-high 16 points. “(Capel) told us to go 33 on the 1-2-1-1 press, and that helped turn us around. We are a good defensive team. That’s where we excel.”
But Virginia, a team not known for its offensive prowess, shot 43.8 percent for the game – 52.0 percent in the first half and 34.8 percent in the second. So, Pitt’s defense didn’t turn on until its backs were against the wall. And to win in the ACC, that can’t be the case.
“Sometimes we take our foot off the gas, and there are too good of teams in this league to do that,” said Toney. “You always have to keep your foot down.”
The loss marked Pitt’s fourth straight and seventh in its last nine games. You can label Saturday’s late-game comeback as a bright spot in a dark time for the team. However, comebacks aren’t any good when they don’t translate to wins.