PITTSBURGH — On Tuesday night, just days after suffering an embarrassing 27-point loss to Clemson, Pitt got right back up and took down Syracuse by 11 points at the Petersen Events Center.
“It starts from the top, and that’s our head coach,” Jamarius Burton said after the win. “We feed off of his energy. He has a show-up mentality regardless of if we are winning or losing. We show up each and every day and put the work in. So, for us, even after tough losses, it’s getting in the gym, putting the work in, looking at the film, and seeing what we can make improvements, and I feel like we did that going into this game. We were the hungrier team, and I feel like we showed that today.”
The Panthers clearly have a lot to work on as a team. They have had games in which they have struggled to shoot the ball from just about everywhere on the court. They have had games in which they have struggled to defend down the stretch. They have had games in which nobody has scored in double digits but John Hugley.
However, no matter what kind of Panthers team has shown up, in almost every game, the team has battled.
“I would say just the move-on mentality,” said guard Onye Ezeakudo, who scored a career-high 11 points in the win. “A big thing was, even when we were down, seeing the coaches come in and still have energy, still believe in us. They came in with a great game plan. Seeing our coaches still believe in us even after a loss like that, we come in with energy, and we feed off that, and that causes us to believe, to allow us to move on, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
O ESTABLISHING HIMSELF ON O: CAREER NIGHT FOR EZEAKUDO
As mentioned above, Ezeakudo delivered his best performance of the season on Tuesday night, dropping 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting, including 3-for-4 from three-point range. He also grabbed three rebounds and dished out one assist in the win, all while turning it over just once in his 34 minutes of play.
“I just have fun anytime I’m out there, really,” Ezeakudo said after the game. “Just competing. All I’m worried about is just doing whatever I can to win. And so that’s really it. I can enjoy it after the game, but I feel like in the midst of it, I’m really just locked in, doing whatever I can to push the team to a win.”
He also added a game-high three steals for the Panthers, living up to his reputation as an elite on-ball defender and a true pest on that end of the floor.
Onyebuchi Ezeakudo with 3️⃣ triples and a career-high 11 points!
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) January 26, 2022
“He was huge,” said Capel. “What he did with his defense on Girard, he’s strong enough where Girard could not drop him off. O could get under him a little bit and knock some basketballs away from him. He made some timely three pointers for us, he penetrated the zone, he had great poise out there. He was huge for us.”
VETS COMING TOGETHER
For a team who has seen major contributions from younger guys like John Hugley and Femi Odukale this season, the Panthers, in their second matchup against Syracuse of the year, looked to two of their seniors and a grad transfer to lead the way.
“I think the thing with those three guys, if they [the rest of the players] learn anything from them, it’s the preparation,” Capel said. “JB and Mo are arguably our two hardest working guys. They’re the guys that are gym rats. They’re here before, they have routines, they’re in here afterwards. They get in here at night, they get in here in the morning, and things like that.”
While Burton and Gueye both joined Pitt prior to this season, the third leading scorer on the night, Ezeakudo, has been with the program since Capel walked through the doors four years ago. Together, those three, while still relatively new to each other, have worked together to lead the way for the team’s youth, especially Hugley, Odukale, and the rest of the 2020 recruiting class.
“And O is a guy, O’s class schedule is a lot different from most of our guys,” Capel said about the engineering major. “So, his stuff is a little bit different. But he’s a worker and he’s a guy that shows up and gives it his all every day. That’s hopefully something that all of our guys learn.”
HUGLEY FOUND A WAY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Although John Hugley went just 3 for 11 from the field in the win, he still put up 11 points and a career-high 18 rebounds, finding a way to make a difference via the free-throw line, on the boards, and on the defensive end.
“I think it is difficult for anyone that is used to scoring,” Capel said about Hugley’s difference-making being outside of scoring in the win. “It’s an adjustment. So many of these young people, and I say this, but I was probably like them at their age, you base everything on scoring. you base it on having a good game. You talk to your family, your friends, whoever. ‘Hey, how did you play? How many points did you score?’ It’s normally the first question. How many points did you score? So many place value on that.”
Whenever Hugley touched the ball down low, the defense would collapse on him, opening up his teammates. The big man dished out two assists in the win and paved the way for Mo Gueye to score a number of points while running the baseline against the zone.
We'll say it again. Let em know, Mo!! 🗣️
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) January 26, 2022
“The people that know basketball and understand it understand that there are so many different ways that you can affect the game,” Capel continued. “For him, it’s an opportunity to learn and to grow because he impacted the game at such a significant level, and he has the opportunity to do that.”
FIGURED OUT THE ZONE
In Tuesday night’s victory, Pitt finally broke through against the Syracuse defense and defeated the Orange by double digits.
The Panthers had four players in double digits, led by Jamarius Burton with 21 points. Gueye followed with 19. Then came Hugley and Ezeakudo with 11 points apiece.
But how did they do it? After looking hopeless on the offensive end just two weeks ago against that same Syracuse 2-3 zone, how did the Panthers turn things around on Tuesday?
“I think it was the ball movement,” Burton said about what led to them finding more holes in the defense. “We didn’t allow the ball to stick. We kept moving it and that allowed us to get them in closeouts, get them in tough situations, and take advantage of them.”
The Panthers only turned the ball over five times in the second half, mostly due to that strong, quick, and firm ball movement that Burton raved about. They found the open man, hit half of their shots from the field (13/26), and sank half their shots from three-point range (6-12) en route to the big win.
“It took us three halves to understand how to attack the zone,” Capel added. “We didn’t attack it well in the first half. We were 21%, 8 turnovers in the first half. But again, we kept battling.”
Another way in which the Panthers solved the puzzle of the Boeheim zone was getting out in transition. Pitt scored 12 fast-break points in the half to Syracuse’s 3, pushing the pace and taking advantage of the Orange not getting back on D.
“Also, when we got rebounds, we wanted to push it,” Capel went on. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about. We felt like we could push it and beat the zone down and get some stuff before they get set up, and so we did that a couple of times. With the steals, we were able to get out and get transition baskets. That’s huge for us because we can struggle to score in the half court. So those plays were big for us.”