PITTSBURGH — There are no valid excuses for going into halftime down 27 to a team that is 12-10 and 4-7 in ACC play, and that is exactly what Pitt did on Saturday against Virginia Tech.
The Hokies jumped out to a 25-8 lead within the first 11 minutes of the game, making nine of their first 14 shots while Pitt made just two of its first ten.
The lead then escalated up to a 46-21 margin. There was no life whatsoever in the Petersen Events Center among fans, players, and coaches on the Pitt side. Boos started to ring from the Pitt fans, and it looked like a low point for the program.
“I don’t know why we didn’t play well in the first half,” Jeff Capel said after the game. “I don’t know why we didn’t defend to the level that we did in the second half. I’m not really sure. But there was no energy on our part and that was embarrassing.”
By no means is Virginia Tech a great team. Sure, they shot the lights out. But that’s what happens when you do not defend together, that is what happens when you do not close out on shooters fast enough, and Jeff Capel knows that his team did not do that. He knows that his team did not play together in that first half. However, he does not know why.
“I’m not sure,” Capel continued. “I wish I could get into their minds and tell you what they’re thinking. I was asked on the radio, ‘What did you say at halftime?’ I’m not really sure what I said, but it’s February 5th, I shouldn’t have to say anything. It’s the time of the year where guys should know the value of every game, every possession, every minute, every second in each game, and it’s disappointing that we didn’t show that for the first 20 minutes.”
First half aside, the Panthers played phenomenally down the stretch. They looked to guards Femi Odukale and Jamarius Burton to take over in the second half, and they did just that. The two combined for 36 points in the frame.
In the end, coming back from 27 is never going to be an easy task, even when those two guys are exploding for that many points.
AGGRESSIVE FEMI IS THE BEST FEMI
Although Saturday night’s loss to Virginia Tech was not pretty, Pitt saw one of its young stars shine in the second half.
Femi Odukale, the sophomore guard from Brooklyn, dropped 25 points in the game, with 22 coming in the second half.
After he put up just three points in the first half, which was perhaps the worst first-half performance of the Jeff Capel era by the team, something changed at the half. Something woke up the Panthers, and especially Odukale.
“We had a talk in the locker room,” Odukale said. “Today I actually spoke up and said some words to my teammates about just playing. Sometimes we feel like robots doing the stuff within the play. We just have to be aggressive and take the open looks.”
JB & Femi each with 1️⃣5️⃣ points.
Pitt's made its last six shots and has cut the Hokie lead to 14.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) February 6, 2022
Odukale has attempted at least eight shots in 17 games this season for the Panthers. Among those 17 games, he has made five field goals in just six games this season, with two of those games being the last two.
After the game, he said that recently, he decided it was time to enter into attack mode.
“I told everybody I’m tired of letting everybody down,” said Odukale. “People said I’m struggling and stuff like that, so I am just going to be aggressive and look for my teammates and look for me.”
Odukale hit each of his first six shots in the half, including three threes. Defensively, he used his length to grab five steals and turn them into offense on the other end.
OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES LEADING TO LAZY DEFENSE
Seemingly everyone around the program expected the Panthers to struggle shooting the ball this season, solely based on the team’s personnel.
However, in many of the Panthers’ close games this year, the defense has made up the lost ground for scoring struggles and looked like one of the team’s best strengths.
But now, after Pitt suffered its third-straight loss, dropping it to an 8-15 record and 3-9 in ACC play, the defense has looked significantly worse and it feels as though the Panthers are getting blown out more often than not.
“Our offense is making us have a slow start,” Odukale said about the team’s defensive struggles. “We don’t see the ball going through the hoop, we feel like we’re supposed to make those shots. It doesn’t translate to the defense. That’s why Virginia Tech came out how they came out.”
As Odukale said, the offensive struggles have negatively affected the team’s defense. And at some point, if the Panthers want to be competitive throughout the rest of the season, they are going to have to lock up the defense even through offensive low points.
NO WING PRODUCTION
While Odukale and Burton both shined in that second half and brought Pitt back to life, only two other players scored at least eight points: Guard Onye Ezeakudo and forward Mo Gueye.
The team’s leading scorer John Hugley only scored two points, having trouble with the early double teams thrown on him by Virginia Tech.
Ithiel Horton failed to score, going 0 for 3 from the field and missing his lone three-point attempt.
William Jeffress, who has played an average of 23.9 minutes per game and started 16 games, did not play.
Whether it is Hugley having a big game, Odukale and Burton lighting up the score sheet, or the wings stepping up, the Panthers have seen flashes of excellence throughout the year. However, due to not being able to put those all together, they currently sit at 8-15.
REMATCH ON MONDAY
After practicing on Sunday, the Panthers are going to hop on a flight out to Blacksburg and follow the Hokies home.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) February 6, 2022
For Pitt to win, it is going to need Hugley to adapt to the early double teams. It is going to need the guards to keep up their offensive production and aggression. And above all, it is going to need to defend no matter how the offense is playing.
The two will tip off in a second matchup at 7 p.m. on ACC Network.