NEW YORK — It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep on moving.
That quote, from Rocky Balboa, perfectly summarizes the Pitt basketball team’s up-and-down season in which the team and the staff have persevered through adversity game after game.
The Panthers have found themselves in numerous one-possession games down the stretch throughout this season, and have lost the majority of them. They’ve taken hits.
While they have given out some hits, picking up close wins over Colgate and Towson, they have also fallen more in recent games in devastating fashion to Monmouth, Minnesota, and Virginia.
After all of those games, head coach Jeff Capel continued to praise his players for showing up and battling, even when things were looking bleak for the program. He continued to say that things would start to get better if his team kept fighting.
“Every day, these guys have shown up trying to get better, they try to listen,” Capel said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve had some gut punches, those two injuries – and those are two really important guys for us – but then the Minnesota game, the Virginia game, where we feel like we have it won, similar to this, and it just doesn’t go our way.”
On Saturday, the fight finally paid off. The Panthers got back up and kept on moving.
Pitt fought for the entire 40 minutes, battling St. John’s the whole way and refusing to go away. Then came the magic.
Jamarius Burton sank a game-winning jumper in the last seconds of the game against St. John’s, lifting the monkey off of Pitt’s back and giving the program a massive win on the world’s biggest stage for basketball.
Jamarius Burton, game winner. pic.twitter.com/9caLkNUEp9
— George Michalowski (@MichalowskiCBB) December 18, 2021
“The thing I’m most proud of is that we stuck together through adversity,” Capel continued. “Through not shooting the basketball well, you know, we still stuck together. We did it defensively. We stepped up and made big plays. Not just shots, but you know taking the charge, the blocks, and saving it, getting loose balls, and things like that. We’re going to enjoy this on the ride back but then we have to be ready for the next game.”
BURTON GIVES PITT HOPE AND A SHOT TO REMEMBER
Jamarius Burton has had a very up-and-down year for the Panthers, nursing an ankle injury for the first few games of the year and then struggling to shoot the ball once he was fully healthy.
Heading into Saturday’s game against St. John’s, Burton had scored at least 11 points in each of Pitt’s previous three games, with his best performance coming against Monmouth (15 points).
On Saturday, he took his production up a notch on the biggest stage in basketball.
That game-winning shot that he hit will go down in Pitt basketball history.
In the years in which despair, desperation, and discouragement have defined the Pitt program, Burton’s iconic shot, sinking the hometown Johnnies in the world-famous Madison Square Garden, will be remembered by Pitt players, coaches, and fans forever.
Not only did Burton hit the game-winning shot as time expired to clinch the upset win over the Johnnies, but he also delivered his most complete, and clutch, performance of the year.
Burton finished with a season-high 20 points on 5-of-13 shooting, including 1 of 2 from three-point range as well as 9-of-10 from the free throw line.
In the second half alone, he kept Pitt afloat during multiple scoring droughts by sinking 7 of his 8 free throws in the half.
So far throughout the season, in games in which John Hugley could not get going on offense, Pitt severely needed a second and third scoring option, in addition to Hugley, to pick up some points. With this 20-point outburst, Burton has now moved into second on the team in scoring, averaging 11 points per game, and after this unforgettable performance in the Garden, Burton certainly looks like he is up for the challenge to be that second or third scoring option for Pitt.
MO GUEYE DAZZLED IN HIS HOMETOWN
In addition to Burton, Staten Island native Mo Gueye also led the way for Pitt en route to the victory with 15 points of his own.
“It was great,” Gueye said about coming home to play in his hometown. “I lived in New York for 20-plus years of my life and I have never been to The Garden before. So, this being my first time here, my family is here, my friends are here, I am just grateful. It’s a great experience to play here in front of family, to play with these guys, and just play in the greatest arena in the world. It’s crazy. I am just grateful for the opportunity and to be able to walk out with the win.”
Gueye was everywhere on both sides of the floor, starting with his offense.
In the first half, he led Pitt with seven points on an efficient 2 for 2 from the field, 1 for 1 from three-point land, and 2 for 2 from the free-throw line. Gueye did it all, grabbing offensive rebounds, assisting his teammates, hitting the three, and much more.
Then, in the second half, Gueye attacked the defense a bit more. He went 2 for 6 in the second frame, and while he missed both three-point attempts, he did make all four of his free throws to keep Pitt close.
Later in the game, it was Gueye’s defense that stood out.
Mo Gueye is a big bright spot for Pitt. pic.twitter.com/iqR742Fa14
— Caleb (@VolsAndDraft) December 18, 2021
He blocked three shots in the second half, all which were significant. However, another play stood out to Capel the most.
“One of the biggest plays, I mean there were so many, but Mo got beat on a drive, but he didn’t give in to it,” Capel described. “He pursued it. He made not only a heck of a block, but he saved it and got us another possession.”
In addition to that block, Gueye also made a big-time bucket off the dribble with just over four minutes remaining to pull Pitt within two.
On the year, Gueye is now averaging 6.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, and also holds the lead for blocks, with 16.
TEAM DEFENSE CONTINUES TO KEEP PITT IN GAMES
Pitt came into this one averaging just 60.5 points per game, which ranked No. 337 in the nation. 337.
While that stat seems very alarming at first glance, Capel and his team have said all year that they understand they lost two of their best scorers. They understand that they don’t shoot the ball well from deep as a team. They understand that they aren’t going to score much.
But, the thing that the Panthers can do about it, that they have done in the past five games, is defend well.
In those last five games, the Panthers have not allowed more than 68 points in any of them. In four of those games, they have held the opposition to less than 58 points.
After allowing just 57 to St. John’s, the Panthers are now giving up just 64.5 points per game, which ranks No. 92 in the nation.
For a team that lost two of its best players and has struggled mightily in many facets of the game, maintaining this solid defense is going to be a major key for Pitt to keep itself in these tight games against more talented teams.
PICKING UP STEAM HEADING INTO CONFERENCE PLAY
After some of Pitt’s losses this year, it’s been easy to say that this team may struggle to win more than five, six, seven games this season. The offense has looked brutal at times. The defense has too.
But now, after watching Pitt head into Madison Square Garden and take down St. John’s, on top of some other close games that the Panthers have played, they have shown the world that they can win games with strong defense, some heart, and timely baskets.
Pitt’s next game comes against Jacksonville at home on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 2 p.m. According to Kenpom,com, Jacksonville is ranked as the No. 221 team in the nation, which looks like another great chance for Pitt to pick up those valuable non-conference wins ahead of the impending ACC schedule.
After the Jacksonville game, Pitt enters ACC play with games against Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, and Louisville.