CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The Tar Heels pressed. The band played loud. The crowd roared. Lights flashed from the video board. The loudspeaker even played Crime Mob’s unruly 2004 anthem “Knuck If You Buck.”
But – somewhat surprisingly – nothing shook the Panthers in the Dean Dome.
North Carolina made its run late, but Pitt showed focus, resolve and maturity and held on for an impressive 76-67 triumph on the road over the Tar Heels, sending most of an announced crowd of 17,270 fans — clad in Carolina blue — home unhappy.
“We kept making plays. That was the thing,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “Those guys did an amazing job. We just stayed together.”
With a pair of late runs, UNC sliced Pitt’s 21-point lead down to just six. But when the game was on the line late, the Panthers turned to John Hugley, who scored on a pair of lay-ups and made a free throw inside 90 seconds to play to push the Panthers’ lead back to a comfortable margin.
Hugley finished the game with 18 points and five boards and was one of five Panthers to score in double digits.
“Just knock down this free throw, John. Take your time,” Hugley told himself as he approached the line. “Coach just told us to stay poised and to stay together.
“We played together and stuck together. Guys took on the challenge. Guys wanted to take charges, guys wanted to defend.”
The Panthers have now won three straight games for the first time this season. With four regular season games to go, they’ve matched their ACC win total from last season (6) and their conference road victories (2).
Keep believing pic.twitter.com/6s7AW5VW0E
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) February 17, 2022
“For us, we’re just trying to get better. Our guys have done an amazing job of showing up every day. We try to concentrate on us and the things we can control,” said Capel, who is now 3-2 against UNC as the Panthers’ head coach. “We’ve gotten a lot of experience this year… You grow from those, even when you fail.”
Pitt sharp from deep
Typically this season, shooting often from three-point land had not been a consistent recipe for success for the Panthers. Before Wednesday, Pitt was 2-9 in games in which it had sank at least nine shots from deep. And Pitt was 0-6 in games that it had shot better than 45% from three.
In the Dean Dome, Pitt shot so well from behind the arc that those past stats didn’t matter. The Panthers made 10 of 17 from deep for a 58.8% clip – its best mark of the season.
No Panther was sharper from behind the arc than Horton, who finished the game shooting 5 of 5 from deep and totaled a game-high 19 points. It’s the second time this season that Horton has sank at least that many three-pointers. He connected on seven on Feb. 9 in Tallahassee in Pitt’s win over Florida State.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) February 17, 2022
“Practice, repetition, extra work. Some of the stuff he does on his own, and then just being aggressive,” Capel said of Horton’s shooting. “Getting in rhythm is also just our guys understanding how to play with him.”
Wednesday was just the eighth game that Horton has played this season. The more that he’s been on the floor, the more his teammates have gotten comfortable with him. Horton played a season-high 40 minutes against UNC and “he wasn’t tired,” Capel said.
And the more often Horton connects from deep, the more open shots in the paint are for his teammates, like Hugley. Pitt nearly matched UNC in points in the paint on Wednesday, 22-26.
“It’s good having IT on the team, just being an elite shooter,” Hugley said. “He shoots the ball at a high clip. He’s just different, man. That’s what we need when we’re getting double teamed, just somebody to kick it to.”
In addition to Horton, Femi Odukale and Mouhamadou Gueye also sank multiple three-pointers. Odukale also notched a season-best nine assists, often dishing dimes to those long range shooters.
UNC’s scorers stifled
Key to the Panthers’ win was bottling up North Carolina big man Armando Bacot. The 6-foot-10 double-double machine was averaging 16.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per-game entering Wednesday night and was third in the nation in rebounding. Pitt was able to not only keep Bacot off the scoreboard, but largely off the glass too.
Bacot finished with just seven points on 2 of 6 shooting and eight rebounds. At halftime, he had just two points on 0 of 2 shooting. It was Bacot’s third lowest scoring total of the season, and just the fifth time this year he didn’t finish with double-digits in rebounds. With Bacot stifled, Pitt nearly matched UNC on the boards, 28-29.
Banging around with Bacot most of the night was Hugley.
“At times, we were going to run and trap Bacot. I thought John did a good job there,” Capel said. “(Hugley is) talented and he’s competitive and he thrives on playing against really good players. I know he was really excited about the challenge (against Bacot).”
Caleb Love wound up being UNC’s leading scorer with 19 points, but he shot just 2 of 9 from the floor in the first half.
UNC’s second-leading scorer, RJ Davis, struggled mightily too. The sophomore guard from New York – who visited Pitt during his recruitment – didn’t score until the 9:28 mark in the second half, when he sank a free throw. He had been averaging 14.1 points per-game, but finished with just three points on 1 of 6 shooting, along with two turnovers.
“For us, we just knew that we were going to have to close out with high hands,” said Jamarius Burton, who finished with 14 points. “We were just locked in and communicating on a different level.”
The Tar Heels shot 26.9% from behind the arc, their fifth-worst mark of the season. North Carolina had won the other four games that it had shot that poorly or worse, but couldn’t overcome its shooting woes against Pitt’s defense.
“We wanted to have a sense of urgency from the three-point line,” Capel said. “We wanted to switch on-time. We got fortunate at times, they missed some… One of the biggest things with them, we wanted to keep them out of transition.”
UNC had only five fast break points.
Georgia Tech next
Pitt doesn’t have a lengthy break to recover after this win. On Saturday, the Panthers will aim for their fourth straight victory, hosting a struggling Georgia Tech team at the Pete. This will be Pitt’s only meeting with the Yellow Jackets this year.
Georgia Tech is far from the same team that won the ACC tournament last season. The Yellow Jackets have lost five of their last six games and are 10-15 on the year.
Still, Pitt can’t take them lightly.
“I just think we’ve come together in these past few days,” Burton said. “The key for us is just locking in on the scouting report again. For us to win, we just have to be all in on defense again.
“We’ve had leads and blown them… I think all of those experiences have helped us down the stretch now. We’re just trying to make the best play, each possession out there.”
A win over Georgia Tech would give Pitt its first four-game winning streak in ACC play since January 2014, when Jamie Dixon’s Panthers beat N.C. State, Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech in the span of 10 days.