NEW YORK — In Pitt’s 71-67 loss to VCU on Thursday night, the Panthers showed bright signs of improvement — in the second half.
The first half was a different story. Without John Hugley (missed game with knee injury), the Panthers started a lineup of Nelly Cummings, Jamarius Burton, Greg Elliott, Blake Hinson, and Federiko Federiko. Within the first seven minutes of the game, both Hinson and Federiko, the team’s starting front court, had two fouls a piece.
“The thing we have to do better is play without fouling,” head coach Jeff Capel said after the loss. “That’s the main thing. Someone mentioned the foul trouble in the first half. That disjoints us, it gets us out of rhythm. And this is the third game in a row that it’s been that way. I agree with Jamarius, that it is a combination of both, and that is something that I have to help us get better with.”
The early fouling certainly disjointed Pitt, as it put more pressure on a struggling Nelly Cummings and Greg Elliott to score. When those two combined to go just one for five with two points in the first half, Pitt set itself back and had to look to the inexperienced Diaz-Graham twins for scoring help.
In the second half, Federiko picked up his third foul on the first possession. 20 seconds in, Pitt was once again without its big.
But Hinson returning to the court was enough for the Panthers to make a run. The 6-foot-7 wing led Pitt on a 17-3 run alongside a resurgent Cummings who had found his stride and started to score the ball in the paint. Hinson posted 14 second-half points on 4-for-7 shooting (3 for 5 from three) while Cummings added 11 in the second half.
Once Hinson and Cummings attracted attention, Pitt’s Jamarius Burton found his stride as well. Burton confidently hit 5 of 7 attempts from the field in the second half, finishing with 14 on the night.
The Panthers struggled to close this one out, hitting a cold streak and allowing a 9-0 run for the Rams to take the lead and win the game late. However, aside from the early foul trouble and the late game cold streak, the Panthers did indeed show signs of improvement.
“I’m proud of my team,” Capel added. “As crazy as that sounds, it’s not crazy to me. I think we got better in Brooklyn. I think we found out a lot about ourselves. I love the way we fought today. I love how connected we were. Just unfortunate that we weren’t able to make some plays down the stretch. We had a couple of costly turnovers, we had those, and they made us pay for them.”
DIAZ-GRAHAM TWINS BRING ENERGY
Only one player scored in double figures in the first half of Pitt’s game against VCU, and his name was Jorge Diaz-Graham.
While starting big man Federiko Federiko sat with two early fouls, Diaz-Graham posted ten points in the first frame, going 2 for 5 from the field and hitting five of his seven free-throw attempts to keep Pitt in the game while its stars struggled. Jorge finished with a career-high ten points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of play.
Jorge leads the way with 🔟 points.
— Pitt Basketball (@Pitt_MBB) November 18, 2022
Guillermo, Jorge’s twin, added seven points of his own while also grabbing seven rebounds in the loss.
“They were terrific,” Capel said of the twins. “They came in and gave great energy. Played hard on both sides of the ball. Made some big plays for us. But the main thing was that they just brought energy and it really ignited the rest of our guys.”
DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENTS A POSITIVE
After two 25+ point losses in a row, Pitt cleaned up its defensive effort on Thursday night in the slim loss to VCU.
“I thought we did a really good job,” Capel said about his team’s defensive performance. “I thought our guys fought. We were connected. We understood the game plan, how we wanted to guard them. We took some charges. We played I think two possessions of zone in the first half, second half we were all man. But I thought our guys really did a good job on the most part.”
Pitt forced 15 turnovers in the loss and held VCU to a 5-of-18 night from beyond the three-point arch. Once Pitt began to force turnovers and string together stops early in the second half, the offense began to catch fire. Pitt used a 14-0 run to gain the momentum and bring itself back into the contest.
“We fought, we got better here, we will get better going forward,” Capel continued. “We’ll get back in the gym and we’ll get to work. But we grew up here in Brooklyn, so I am pleased about that.”
NELLY CUMMINGS FINDS RHYTHM
Cummings, the team’s starting point guard, struggled to find much rhythm leading the offense in the team’s two prior losses.
Against West Virginia, Cummings scored eight points and turned the ball over four times. Against Michigan on Wednesday, Cummings had just four points and three turnovers. However, after a sluggish start to the first half of Thursday night’s contest, Cummings seemed to turn things around offensively.
In the midst of Pitt’s 14-0 run early in the second frame, Cummings confidently drove through the lane twice in a two-minute span, hitting a layup through traffic on the first and a floater on the second drive. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting in the loss.
Cummings’ confidence visibly increased as he celebrated his makes and turned up the intensity on both sides of the ball. As we have seen throughout the year, as Cummings goes, this team goes.
FAVORABLE THANKSGIVING WEEK SCHEDULE COMING
After falling to 1-3 on the year, each of Pitt’s next three games come against teams ranked in the bottom quadrant of division one basketball.
The Panthers will take on William and Mary (No. 335 team in the nation, per kenpom.com), Fairleigh Dickinson (347), and Alabama State (349).
The Panthers host Alabama State in their next game on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center.