PITTSBURGH — Against Minnesota, Pitt was right there.
Pitt was right there the entire way. The Panthers battled from the very tip off, had the lead at halftime, and had the crowd involved until the very last second. John Hugley was playing like a star. The supporting cast was contributing with assists, with rebounds, with defense. They were right there, but they could not finish.
“We’ve got to be better at closing games, rebounding, and taking better shots,” said Hugley, the game’s leading scorer who finished with 25.
Out of the Panthers’ five losses, three have been by 15+. It’s not like every loss has been down to the wire in a close game. Most have been blowouts. To Pitt’s credit, it did defeat UNC Wilmington and Towson in relatively-close matchups.
But that is UNC Wilmington and Towson. The No. 281 and No. 180 teams in the nation, according to Kenpom.com. The Panthers’ schedule is only going to get worse. Sure, Pitt still has Monmouth (166) left on the schedule. It still has Jacksonville (268) on the schedule.
However, outside of that, the rest of the schedule is going to be a gauntlet, especially for this Pitt team that has really not proven much through seven games against the lighter part of its schedule.
The Panthers have struggled to play with a lead, struggled to come from behind in blowouts, and struggled to pull through in this close game, when it was right there for the taking. And from here on out, Pitt may not find itself in as close a game as this one.
HUGLEY IS STILL A MONSTER
In Tuesday’s game, sophomore big man John Hugley had a career night for the Panthers, scoring 25 points and grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds.
He bullied defenders inside. He hit a buzzer-beating, crowd-electrifying three at the half. He got to the line. He defended. Hugley truly looked like a star big man for Pitt.
“I thought his defense was the best it’s been all year. I thought his ball-screen defense was really good. He got on the floor for a loose ball. He was a guy that helped all over. We wanted to do that, that was part of our game plan with their fives. For the guy that was guarding their fives to be a helper everywhere I thought he did a really good job of that.”
While Minnesota’s strength was not its inside defense coming into this one, it was still a great sign to see Hugley put up monster numbers once again, even after a few dominant performances earlier in the year.
Minnesota HC Ben Johnson on Pitt big man John Hugley:
"You need five guys to guard him."
— George Michalowski (@MichalowskiCBB) December 1, 2021
Hugley continues to lead the team in points and rebounds per game, now averaging 15.9 points and 8.1 rebounds. If Pitt’s guard and outside play can improve, paired with Hugley, this team can show some overall promise.
NEED A BIG PLAY MAKER
Coming into the season, Pitt was ready to look to Nike Sibande to create his own shots. He goes down with an ACL tear that puts him out for the year, and now you need other guys to look to for shot creation, especially when the offense is struggling otherwise.
Now, Pitt has to look to Femi Odukale, who looked like he could play the part of shot creator after his strong performance against The Citadel. After a couple of inconsistent scoring games, maybe not. Maybe Jamarius Burton, who hasn’t really been fully healthy until now. He came in with some solid experience in big games and is a proven scorer.
However, down the stretch of close games for Pitt, none of these guys have really proven make the big shot, aside from Odukale who hit the big three against Towson, but still, that was one time, and that was a wide open look off. So the Panthers seem to lack a guy that can step up with seconds on the clock late in the game and trust with the ball in his hands.
On Tuesday, Capel looked to Burton for that role.
“We were going to try to get into a flat ball screen and just try to open the floor up a little bit and allow JB a chance to make a read off of it,” Capel said. “When it got to the spot, we just didn’t make the shot.”
After the miss, Minnesota came down and eventually won the game.
For Pitt, if it finds itself in these one possession games late, especially in ACC play, it is going to need Odukale, Burton, or somebody else to come up clutch.
GUEYE, SUPPORTING CAST DID THE LITTLE THINGS
In Tuesday night’s game, nobody on Pitt, other than John Hugley, scored more than six points.
At first, that sounds like a bad thing. And yes, the rest of the guys missed a bunch of shots, which is a bad thing. Burton, Odukale, and Gueye combined to go 5 for 24, Santos barely played, and Jeffress only took four shots. However, Pitt looked competitive and locked in when it was focusing on getting Hugley – its best player on Tuesday – the ball. That was what was working the best. And when the Panthers were focused on getting the ball, once they got it in his hands, they were playing well overall. They were setting screens, they were calling for screens, they were crashing the boards, they were throwing solid passes inside, they were defending better.
“I’d like to make more shots, obviously, and I’d like not to have double figure turnovers,” Capel said. “But to hold them to under 40 percent, yes, that’s absolutely what we would like to do. That has to be part of the recipe for us to win, so it is very disappointing that we did those things, but we didn’t finish at the end. The last two possessions that they had, the first shot defense was ok, but we didn’t finish it out with a rebound.”
“In the UMBC game, our offense was really good, but our defense wasn’t,” Ezeakudo said after the game. “This game, I think we fought the whole time. We just had to close it out, and we didn’t. So I feel like we’re right there, and that’s the good part of it. We’re right there.”
While he struggled shooting the ball, Mo Gueye finished with 11 rebounds, 2 assists, and a key block down the stretch. Jeffress hit a three, which was a good sign, and also had five rebounds and a steal. Little things. Ezeakudo had three clean assists, hit a three, hit a smooth, crowd-igniting lay up, and did not turn the ball over once. Odukale hit two huge free throws down the stretch, grabbed five rebounds, and also dished out five assists.
Mo said GET OUT.
Timeout Pitt. 53-50 Panthers lead over Minnesota with 2:28 to play.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) December 1, 2021
So overall, the Panthers, around Hugley, did the little things pretty well. If they continue to improve at these things, they will get better and better and get over the hump as a team.
“Just a couple of defensive breakdowns,” Ezeakudo added. “Just little things that we need to pick up on. Coach talks about it, every little detail matters. Just the little things.”
PITT’S STARS SEARCHING FOR CONSISTENCY
John Hugley has scored 17 or more in four out of Pitt’s seven games this season. Femi Odukale has four games of at least 14 points.
The two sophomores, the team’s leading scorers, are the lone Panthers that are averaging in double digits.
However, the two have both had games that were not so pretty. In the other three games, Odukale had four, six, and seven points. In his other three, Hugley had one, seven, and 13. For both of them, being consistent is going to be a large hill to climb, and Capel knows that.
“It’s something you certainly want,” Capel said about teaching Hugley how to stay consistent. “You teach him. We look at John as a freshman because he only got to play seven games last year and he had a some really good games towards the end, we thought he was coming on. But, when you start to have some numbers like he did the first couple of games, then teams have tape on you. They start to game plan, they start to do different things. That is certainly going to happen from these last two games as we move forward. So there are little adjustments that you have to make and just teaching him how to do those. To work harder, to do you work a little bit earlier. To be able to play through contact, to be able to play in a crowd, to make good passes, to not force it at times, to let it come to you. I think he’s learning that as we go forward.”