LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Once again, an ACC game was there to be won for Pittsburgh in the final minute. Once again, the Panthers came up just one play short — despite Louisville’s best efforts to give them the game in the closing moments.
Two bench technical fouls on the Cardinals and a timely Jamarius Burton 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds whittled a seven-point Louisville lead to three, giving Pittsburgh one final chance to rescue the game and force an extra session. However, Burton’s contested triple from the left wing at the horn was long, allowing the conference-leading Cardinals to escape with a 75-72 victory at the KFC Yum Center and keep Pitt winless in the ACC, with all three losses coming by three points or less.
“I thought our guys fought to put ourselves in position where we had a chance once again, but we’ve got to be smarter to be able to finish,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “We’ve got to be able to defend better, and credit their guys. They made some big plays and big shots, and they made enough to come out with the win.”
Down the stretch, most of the key plays for the Cardinals (10-4, 4-0 ACC) came courtesy of El Ellis, who scored 10 of his 18 points in a six-minute span that turned a two-point Pittsburgh edge into a four-point deficit and forced the Panthers (5-9, 0-3) to get desperate. Ellis’ biggest dagger came when he broke a 63-63 tie on a jumper with 3:33 left, after which Pitt never got even again.
“He really juiced our team in the second half,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “He’s a fantastic finisher for his size. Pittsburgh’s long at almost every position, and a lot of guys can maybe get in there, but don’t have the ability when they’re El’s size to finish.”
The Panthers saw that advantage disappear in the game’s opening minute, however, as they quickly lost John Hugley for the entire first half because of foul trouble. Pittsburgh already had to play without Dan Oladapo because of COVID protocols, and Hugley picked up a quick foul and a technical foul in the game’s first 80 seconds. The Panthers then followed with another bench technical, gifting Louisville the game’s first two points and causing Capel to get Hugley out of the action rather than risk a cheap third foul with the officials calling the game tight.
“I was tempted (to keep him in), but with how the game was being called, I didn’t want to do it,” Capel said. “I thought we were able to keep it to where it didn’t get away from us. If it had started to get away from us maybe a little bit more, maybe I would have done that.
“I’m not one of those coaches where a guy gets two, you automatically sit him for the rest of the half. But the way the game was being called, especially early, it’s not something that I thought was smart for us. Our guys kept us in it.”
Without Hugley on the floor, the Panthers managed to improvise, getting 12 first-half points from Ithiel Horton in his first game back since reinstatement and six of Burton’s game-high 21 in the first 20 minutes to keep the deficit at three. Hugley then added 11 points when he returned and helped spark a 10-3 start to the second half, giving Pitt a chance to take control of the contest.
But with the game in the balance, foul trouble and practice issues from COVID protocols caught up with the Panthers. Burton’s 3-pointer with seven seconds left was Pitt’s only basket over the game’s final 4:30, although the Panthers stayed in the game thanks to some unlikely help from the Cardinals. With Louisville up 72-65 and Pitt forced to foul, the Cardinals earned two technicals for jawing with the officials, handing the Panthers four free points and keeping them within shouting distance.
However, Pitt couldn’t take advantage of Louisville’s mistakes, leaving the Panthers at 0-3 in the league with Boston College — who has played just once since Dec. 13 — coming to the Petersen Events Center on Saturday. The Panthers’ losses to Virginia, Notre Dame and Louisville have come by a total of five points, leaving them at a crossroads as they try to turn close losses into wins and get the program to turn a corner.
“I wouldn’t say that frustration is starting to build,” said Burton, who saw his first action after not practicing at all with the team since the Notre Dame loss. “In the locker room, we still understand that we’re a good team. We just have to get to the point where we stop beating ourselves night in and night out. We’ll win some of these games.”