CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Just days after falling to Minnesota in the final seconds of a tight game, Pitt did it again on Friday night.
The Panthers found themselves in an eerily similar situation against Virginia. The scene? Score in the low 50s, Pitt hanging around and showing heart. But the Panthers needed to finish strong this time.
Instead, what followed was even more disastrous than the Minnesota ending.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) December 4, 2021
Committing a foul up four in the last ten or so seconds of the game is less than ideal, especially on a guy like Jayden Gardner who finishes as much as anyone through contact. While it was not a clear hack by any means, Pitt cannot change anything about the call after the fact. It was a mental lapse even making it that close of a call in that game situation.
Then came the five second violation. Pitt now had a one-point lead, and needed to get the ball in. Sure, it is easier said than done to find someone that is open in that situation. Ok. Call a timeout. Players. Coach. Call a timeout if you have a timeout. Not being ready for that situation is inexcusable.
Lastly, the game-winner. The possession had multiple missed shots, and multiple offensive rebounds. On the last try specifically, Virginia’s Taine Murray chucked up a deep three for the win. While the ball was in the air, only two Panthers, Hugley and Burton, found a body and boxed out. The rest stopped and stared, while four Cavaliers crashed the boards, and eventually Gardner grabbed the loose rebound which set up his game-winner.
These are all mental mistakes that the Panthers made that caused them to lose a game in which they battled so hard to win.
THREE-POINT SHOOTING A GOOD SIGN
After an abysmal 3-for-15 performance beyond the arc against Minnesota, Pitt came out on Friday hot from three-point range.
The Panthers started off the game 4 of 6 from three, which, while not eye-catching at first, certainly helped them set the tone early on in a game they were heavy underdogs in.
Will Jeffress, a career 18% three-point shooter coming in, confidently knocked down both of his attempts on the wing against Virginia. Nate Santos, who has shown that he has a nice-looking shot previously this year, hit his lone three of the night. Ezeakudo hit two out of his three attempts from deep, including the go-ahead bucket with :52 left in the game. With Burton and Gueye both going 1 for 2 from three, the Panthers looked solid from downtown.
The only negative takeaway from the Panthers’ outside game on Friday was the fact that Hugley put up five threes and only made one. However, it seems safe to say that he will not be shooting five threes per game, so if the Panthers can continue that hot shooting from outside overall, it could become a strength for this team.
ODUKALE ABSENCE PUTS MORE PRESSURE ON PAPER-THIN GUARD ROTATION
Prior to Friday’s game, Femi Odukale was ruled out with an ankle injury.
Odukale was with the team on the trip to Virginia, and was dressed in street clothes on the bench for the game. He did not have crutches, a boot, or anything similar, and appeared to be walking comfortably.
However long Odukale is out, or at least not 100%, the Panthers are going to have to depend even more on Jamarius Burton, Nate Santos, and Ezeakudo from the guard spots.
On Friday night, Burton played a solid game, considering all of the pressure on him as the guard on the team with the most experience. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting, and also contributed with three rebounds and four assists.
After starting the season with a larger role than expected, Santos has played just 23 combined minutes in his last two games. Santos did come in and hit a three against Virginia, but if he is only going to get one look from outside per game, the Panthers are not going to have many other opportunities to score out there. The staff, as well as the players, clearly believe in him as a shooter, and are going to need him especially in these next few games.
TIME TO APPRECIATE ‘O’
Just over an hour before the game, Pitt announced that its second-leading scorer, Femi Odukale, would not play due to an ankle injury. That left the Panthers with three guards: Jamarius Burton, Nate Santos, and walk-on Onye Ezeakudo.
Capel decided to give Ezeakudo the start, which was just the second of Ezeakudo’s four-year career.
“I was excited,” Ezeakudo said about getting the start. “I just really wanted to go out and fight with my brothers and go out and get a win. That was really my only concern. So, I was really excited, but, I just wanted to play hard, do whatever I could to help the team win.”
The 6-foot-1 senior played 29 minutes, the most he has played all year. In those 29 minutes, he scored eight points on 3-for-6 shooting. He also hit two threes, one of which being perhaps the biggest shot of his career.
Onyebuchi Ezeakudo drains the three to give @Pitt_MBB the late lead!! 👌
— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) December 4, 2021
“I thank my teammates and my coaches,” he said “They all have confidence in me and they all tell me that. So I just ride off that. I am thankful for Coach for having the confidence in me to even put me out there, and I just thank God for the opportunity. But that’s really it, everybody just tells me they have confidence in me, so, I just ride off that.”
Ezeakudo has now played at least 20 minutes in four different games this season, and although it is a small sample size, has become one of Pitt’s most consistent options from downtown (5-9 on the year). For a walk-on, his impact on this shorthanded Pitt team has been immense, and he has earned all of the playing time he has received thus far throughout the season.
DEFENSE, REBOUNDING SHOWING IMPROVEMENT
Through eight games, Pitt has only been allowing an average of 67.1 points per game, which is, well, for this team, not bad.
The Panthers have also been out-rebounding their opponents often, and currently own an average rebound margin of +6.88, which lands them around 50th in the nation in that stat. On Friday, they once again won the battle of the boards against the Cavaliers, winning the battle 30-27.
In its two most recent games, against Minnesota and Virginia, two power conference opponents, Pitt has held its opponent to less than 60 points. If it can continue to slow the pace of the game down and battle for more and more points each game, it will have a chance to come out on top of some of these close fights.