GREENSBORO, N.C. — To call Wednesday’s first round ACC Tournament game between Pitt and Duke ugly would be an understatement.
The game featured 30 turnovers, 33 fouls, 20 missed free throws, and countless examples of sloppiness and miscommunication. The Panthers shot 28% from the floor in the second half, while Duke shot 18% in the first quarter.
The game was mucked up from start to finish, but it seemed like the right atmosphere for 15th-seeded Pitt. The Panthers led 10th-seeded Duke for more than 31 minutes. And in the second quarter, led by as many as 16 points.
It wasn’t enough.
Duke charged back late in the game, outscoring Pitt in the final two minutes of the game to take a 55-52 victory inside the historic Greensboro Coliseum.
“Unfortunately, we have to go home, but I’m really proud of our team growth,” White said. “Obviously we love being in big games like that and having a chance to win down the stretch. As we’ve built this program… there’s been tons of huge growth in our program and in our team.”
The Blue Devils (17-12) will move on to face No. 7 Miami on Thursday. Pitt’s season is over, ending with their 10th straight loss. The Panthers finish the season with an 11-18 record, and just two ACC wins.
The game was put on ice in the fourth quarter when Duke guard Shyanne Day-Wilson turned her game up a notch, and did it with some swagger. The recently crowned ACC Rookie of the Year drove on Emy Hayford, then stepped back and swished a mid-range jumper. As the scoreboard changed to put Duke ahead by two, Day-Wilson held her index finger to her lips, as if to hush the haters.
A possession later, after Pitt’s Liatu King made a free throw, Day-Wilson stepped back again and fired. This time, she was behind the arc. The ball sank and she blew a kiss to the crowd, putting the Blue Devils ahead by four with less than a minute to play.
“I was just really trying to score, do what I can, and my team really played hard,” Day-Wilson said.
“We played together, and obviously we pulled out a big victory.”
Pitt had a chance to tie the game at the buzzer, but Destiny Strother’s attempt from deep range rattled off the rim.
Day-Wilson led all scorers with 22 points on 7 of 17 shooting, and also had five assists. Pitt was led by Dayshanette Harris’ 11 points and King’s 13 points and nine rebounds.
“Late game takes a different type of mentality, and I think we need to grow in that aspect,” Harris said. “I feel like these are the times that you’re more stressed and more heightened during late games and close games like this.”
The game was tied 6-6 early, but then Pitt broke off a 14-3 run to take a 20-9 lead by the end of the first quarter. Brown had two rebounds, an assist and two points during that stretch, while Harris and Exanor each had five points. Pitt outscored Duke 14-2 in the paint in the opening quarter, and the Panthers held the Blue Devils to 3 of 16 shooting from the floor.
“We were playing free, and they really were trusting each other and making plays on both ends of the court,” White said. “Then we relax and don’t continue to play as hard as you have to maintain that and keep it going for as long as you can, knowing that ACC teams are going to make a run.”
Pitt led by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, but Duke trimmed that deficit down a single point by the start of the fourth, using an 8-0 run to end the third. Day-Wilson scored six points in the third period.
Beginning at the 4:20 mark in the third quarter, the Panthers endured a scoring drought that lasted more than eight minutes. Luckily, they were able to hold Duke to just one basket in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. Pitt’s scoring slump ended when Rita Igbokwe connected on a lay-up in traffic and then flushed a free throw with 6:11 to play, giving the Panthers a two-point lead.
The points were the only ones Igbokwe scored in 23 minutes of play. She also had eight rebounds and two blocks. Amber Brown, hampered by foul trouble, tallied six points, six rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes. Taisha Exanor added eight points for Pitt.
In all, Pitt shot 6 of 17 from the free throw line, 4 of 11 from three-point land and had 16 turnovers to just 10 assists.
“I feel like our focus isn’t where it needs to be towards the end of the game,” King said. “We miss a lot of assignments, and a little bit of tweaks on that, and that changes the whole ball game.”
From this Pitt team, the only player graduating is Mary Dunn. Next season White’s first recruiting class – the core of Harris, Brown, Igbokwe and Hayford – will all be seniors, along with Marquette transfer Destiny Strother. Together, the group has taken steps forward to make Pitt into a program that’s competitive in the ACC.
But to turn the Panthers into a winning team in the ACC, the steps they take from here out will have to be much bigger. If this group intends to leave a lasting mark on Pitt, next season figures to be a crucial one.
“Off the top of my head there’s three games that — Louisville, N.C. State and Notre Dame – that we didn’t have a chance at all. And all of rest of them throughout ACC play, we were in them, had a chance, so that’s huge growth,” White said. “Now we’re in that final stage where you have to compete and beat ACC teams. We’re learning how hard that is, and our kids still have to make that next step and next jump of just the mentality it takes in those crucial moments to make plays.
“Now it’s that final piece of, now, you’ve got to be in it and win.”
Added Harris: “There is a bright future for us. Nobody wants to have a season the way we had it… We’ve been beat on, and it’s time for us to do the beating.”