PITTSBURGH — Without question, Pitt has been through more ups and downs than anyone could have imagined this season and last.
From the departure of last season’s top three scorers to this season’s news of Nike Sibande’s torn ACL as well as Ithiel Horton’s suspension, the Panthers have been through it all.
However, they’ve still shown so much fight this year, and have gotten back up from just about every punch they’ve been hit with.
The Panthers sit at 7-11 and 2-5 in the ACC after their loss to Virginia on Wednesday night. All things considered, not bad. However, at some point, this group needs to find consistency. Pitt’s last five games have resulted in this: L, W, L, W, L. Inconsistency.
They have the talent, they have shown that they have chemistry, they have a star, they have defended well, and much more. But they just have not been able to consistently come out on top.
“We just need to learn how to become consistent,” head coach Jeff Capel said after the game. “That’s the main thing. We have to learn how to become a consistently good basketball team. It’s hard, but we have to understand the things that are necessary to do it.”
PITT HAD ITS CHANCE
Down the stretch of Wednesday night’s loss to Virginia, Pitt willed its way to just a three-point deficit with just over one-and-a-half minutes remaining.
The Panthers needed one more bucket and one more stop to put the ultimate pressure on Virginia. However, they could not get the first of the two when they had their chance.
After forcing a turnover, Pitt brought the ball down on the offensive end. Mo Gueye took a few dribbles down the right side of the lane, extended using his long wingspan, and let go a finger roll in the lane while leaning off to the side of his defender.
The shot rolled right off the left side of the rim and went right into the hands of Virginia’s Aarman Franklin. Shortly after, Franklin hit an open layup to bring the lead to a more comfortable five with 26 seconds on the clock.
“They made us pay, they got into a great rhythm offensively,” Capel said. “It didn’t matter what we did, man, zone, we tried both. It wasn’t effective. Even with that, it was still a three-point game late in the game and we had an opportunity with a strong drive, and we just weren’t able to finish and put more game pressure on them.”
All the pressure had shifted back to Pitt, and the Panthers just could not get it done. Two more Kihei Clark free throws gave the ‘Hoos a seven-point lead and their second win over Pitt in as many months.
“Our inability to defend at the level that we did the first 16 minutes and 51 seconds is what did us in,” Capel added. “At 3:51, at the under four timeout, they were 34% from the field and I think they had 17 points. From that point on, I thought our defense was not to the level that it needs to be to beat a championship program like them.”
HUGLEY DOING IT ALL, NEEDS SOME HELP
By the time Mo Gueye had picked up his fourth foul of the night, he had six points. Burton had four. Odukale had two. Hugley, on the other hand, was already at 20.
Hugley had been carrying the Panthers all night offensively, and the Virginia defense was starting to lock him down more and more as the game went on. Now with Gueye out, Pitt looked lost.
Odukale could not find holes in the defense to attack, Burton was not getting up the shots he usually does, and the momentum that Pitt had built up was slowly fading away.
“I don’t think it was anything that I said,” Capel said when asked if he did anything differently that allowed Odukale to score late in the game. “I thought that we found something that was able to work for us, and he was able to get downhill, get to the basket, and we had some opportunities there.”
Although the Panthers finally got some scoring out of Odukale and Burton later on down the stretch, it turned into another scenario of too little, too late in the loss.
FREE THROWS A MAJOR IMPROVEMENT FOR PITT
Over the past few years, including the beginning of this season, Pitt has struggled from the free-throw line.
In Pitt’s first eight games, including the first matchup against the Cavaliers, Pitt made 109 of its 190 free-throw attempts (57%). After a solid 18-for-22 night from the line on Wednesday, the Panthers have now made 180 of their last 246 free throws, a 73.2% mark which, if it were over the entire season, would rank them in the top 100 in the nation in free-throw percentage.
Individually, Jamarius Burton is leading the team with an 89% mark at the line, while Mo Gueye has hit 81% of his foul shots.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS, AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT VIRGINIA DID
While Pitt did shoot 50% from the field, it only put up 42 field-goal attempts all game, which was its second lowest total on the year.
Hugley played well. Burton and Odukale picked up their game late. But as a team, the Panthers were shut down by Virginia’s suffocating defense. A defense that has allowed a combined 117 points in two matchups against Pitt this year. A defense that is ranked No. 10 in the nation in opponents scoring average.
“Attention to detail and talk, those two areas,” Capel said when asked where his team’s defense can improve. “In order to be good defensively you have to talk. Talk unites us, talk connects you and unites you and when we do that and have attention to detail then we’re pretty good there. But when we don’t, then we are like we were tonight.”
Capel went on to credit the Cavaliers veteran presence on the floor when talking about how they shut down Pitt on the night.
“A guy that won a national championship was on the court for them,” Capel said about Virginia. “Another guy, Caffaro, that was on the team that won a championship. So, they have championships. They won multiple ACC Championships, including last year. It’s a program that’s a championship program and that is what we aspire to become.”