CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Pitt’s men’s basketball team had a legitimate chance to top the 14th-ranked Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday. The Panthers led for much of the first half and were tied 36-36 with the ‘Hoos midway through the second half.
Then the wheels fell off. Pitt played some abysmal basketball for about four minutes – missing a few lay-ups and turning the ball over – as Virginia embarked on a 16-0 run. The Cavaliers wound up winning 73-66.
It would be easy to assume that Pitt head coach Jeff Capel would be angry after a result like that. His Panthers were so close to triumphing over a team they hadn’t beaten in four years, a team that won the NCAA tournament the last time it was played.
But Capel’s tone in the virtual post-game press conference was anything but bitter. He wasn’t mad, or annoyed or disappointed. The third-year head coach was genuinely appreciative of the way his men battled, and pleased with the way they closed the game out, trimming the deficit from as much as 17 points to as little as six.
“I knew this would be a challenge for us, but I’m proud of how we played,” Capel said. “If we could eliminate that four-minute stretch, maybe it’s a little bit closer.”
HOOPIN’ HOOS A PROBLEM FOR PITT
Indeed. Up until the 15:57 mark in the second half, Pitt was matching Virginia in nearly every facet of the game. Pitt even led 7-0 to start the game too, but Virginia never wavered from its three-point-focused attack. The Cavaliers knocked down four shots from behind the arc on that 16-0 run while Pitt struggled to play any form of halfway decent basketball over that same stretch.
In all, Virginia shot 12-of-24 from behind the arc. On his way to a game-high 23 points, Sam Hauser knocked down 3-of-4 attempts from three-point land.
“Sam was the difference in this game, on offense and on defense,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
Fellow redshirt senior Jay Huff also hit 3-of-4 three’s and finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks before fouling out. The 7-foot-1 center was a problem for Pitt’s defense.
“Huff is a really good player,” said Pitt’s Xavier Johnson, who finished with 10 points and six assists. “He’s a big man who can roll, pop and really shoot the ball. We really didn’t have an answer for him, but we’re going to have an answer next time.”
Junior point guard Kihei Clark presented issues for Pitt too, as he orchestrated Virginia’s attack. The 5-foot-9 California native finished with 11 points, eight assists and a rebound, and played stingy perimeter defense.
“He’s really good. He’s the national championship point guard,” Capel said of Clark. “He’s been in big moments. I think the only thing he thinks about is, how can he help his team win.”
This game was another example of three-point defense being a problem for Pitt. In recent losses, Wake Forest and Notre Dame each shot better than 46% from deep against the Panthers. It’s an area that Pitt’s been inconsistent in, because they defended the three well in other recent games – against North Carolina and Virginia Tech – holding those two squads to less than 30% from deep.
CAPEL PLEASED WITH EFFORT
Still, even after falling behind by as much as 17 points, Pitt didn’t fold. In the last six minutes, the Panthers broke off a 13-3 run to cut the deficit down to seven points.
Pitt excelled at scoring in the paint, outscoring Virginia 42-18 down-low. They also made the most of fast-break chances, besting the Cavaliers 16-4 there. And on second-chance buckets, the Panthers had a 12-6 advantage.
And in addition to Johnson and Justin Champagnie finishing with double-digit scoring totals, Ithiel Horton had a solid game too, tallying 15 points and four rebounds in 35 minutes of play. Horton has now scored at least 12 points in three of his last four games. Capel kept his rotation tight, with only Terrell Brown and Femi Odukale coming off the bench.
Like Capel said, were it not for that disastrous four-minute stretch for the Panthers, the outcome of the game could have been very different.
“I’m proud of my guys. We fought. We did some stuff we can build on in this game,” Capel said. “We’re maturing.”
POY CANDIDATES GO HEAD-TO-HEAD
As usual, Champagnie led the way for Pitt, leading the team in scoring and rebounding with 18 points and 10 boards. The sophomore leads the ACC in double-doubles this season with nine and remains one of the best rebounders in the nation.
He was matched up a few times Saturday night with Hauser, Virginia’s star who averages 14.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per-game. Hauser was the one often guarding Champagnie. On the other end, Hauser was defended by both Champagnie and Au’diese Toney.
It was a challenge for both Hauser and Champagnie.
“Hauser is very tall. He can shoot, he can put the ball on the court. He’s slow, but can still make a game for himself, so that’s always tough,” Champagnie said. “He can really shoot the basketball and has a good feel for the game.”
Both players rank in the top 15 in the ACC in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. When ballots are cast for the conference’s Player of the Year, both should be in the mix.
LOUISVILLE UP NEXT
With a 9-6 (5-5 ACC) record, Pitt needs to avoid a loss on Wednesday in Louisville to stay above .500 in ACC play. The Panthers lost to the Cardinals back in December in Pittsburgh, 64-54. Pitt has now lost four of its past five games, but that lone win was against a ranked Virginia Tech team.
One stat that should play into Pitt’s favor: Louisville has been an awful three-point shooting team this season, making an ACC-worst 83 shots from outside the arc in 15 games.
Capel’s side will need to refocus quickly to avoid falling further into their current slump. A win against Louisville could go a long way, and give the Panthers confidence going into the game that follows, a road tilt in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. Capel believes the Panthers are trending in the right direction, despite Saturday’s defeat.
“We don’t need other teams to help us mature. We’re mature. Today was a big-time effort in terms of maturity for our team,” Capel said. “I’m hopeful that, no matter who we play, no matter who’s in front of us, we continue to do that.”