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Pitt Basketball

Five Takeaways: Veteran Panthers Compete Until the Buzzer, Pull Out Road Win Over Syracuse

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The individual players on this Pitt team knew how to win coming into this season, but the team as a whole? Not quite.

Bringing in a new group of leaders is going to be tough no matter what, especially when your starting five is made up of four transfers (Burton two years ago) and one JuCo prospect. However, we’ve known it all year: Jeff Capel went out and got these new guys for a few important reasons: They are talented veterans that can shoot the basketball and win games.

However, through the first few weeks of the season, the team struggled to put it all together and do those things that each individual guy had been so used to. But now, as we approach holiday season and ACC play, the Panthers are sitting at 9-4 with a 2-0 ACC record and are clearly learning how to win together.

On Tuesday night, the Panthers battled off a ferocious 20-point comeback from ACC foe Syracuse in a raucous JMA Dome (formerly Carrier Dome). The Panthers won the game 84-82, sending the Orange crowd home quietly. Pitt’s three leading scorers on the night were all three transfers that arrived on campus this summer: Blake Hinson (25 points), Nelly Cummings (22), and Greg Elliott (12).

“We let them back in the game, and that’s not what we want to do clearly, but you’ve got to be so thankful, so blessed to be in this position,” leading scorer Blake Hinson (Iowa State transfer) said after the win. “ACC game, on the road. Be in a position to make a play and thank God I was there. It wasn’t just that play but being there after it was all said and done, it’s just so exciting.”

Hinson played key roles on both sides of the Panthers in the win, leading them in points (25), rebounds (13), and earning a crucial steal in the final ten seconds of the game as ‘Cuse tried to look to big man Jesse Edwards on the second-to-last possession of the game. Hinson intercepted the pass like a defensive back, causing Edwards to foul him quickly and foul out of the game.

The new group of Panthers is figuring things out and playing to its strengths. While you never want to see a 20-point lead erased, they showed just how important it is to hold strong in the final moments of an intense road game and come out with the ‘W.’

NELLY CUMMINGS OWNS THE 2-3 ZONE

From the very start, Pitt guard Nelly Cummings came out on fire against Syracuse’s infamous 2-3 zone.

Cummings led the team with 14 first-half points, headlined by four threes in the opening frame. The veteran guard was locked in throughout the entire game, adding on two more threes in the second half to increase his scoring total to 22. He also dished out six assists in the win for Pitt.

“He was terrific. Nelly is one of the guys that’s played against Syracuse,” Capel said. “Nelly has some familiarity with them, and they won here last year, Colgate. He was able to make shots. He took some in the second half that could’ve been daggers. Two-on-one breaks that we missed, but he did some outstanding stuff tonight.”

Cummings, the former Colgate star, has played at the Carrier Dome (now JMA Wireless Dome) against the Orange three times in his career now. He scored ten points in his first matchup there in 2019-20. He then scored 18 and hit three threes last season in a huge Colgate road win. Then on Tuesday, he turned in one of his best all-around performances of the year in a Pitt uniform.

Oh, and by the way, his former Colgate (40 miles from Syracuse) teammates showed up to support him.

“Terrific, terrific,” Hinson said about Cummings’ big-time night. “I don’t really know what else to say, I’m just thankful to be on Nelly’s team. He brought in a very locked-in energy that rubbed off on the whole team, especially me. It showed, it showed.”

JORGE DIAZ-GRAHAM STEPPING UP

Pitt looked to its starting five all night, with each of the starters playing 36+ minutes aside from Federiko Federiko who played just 22 due to foul trouble.

Once the Finnish big man hit the bench with foul trouble, Pitt had to turn to Jorge Diaz-Graham for help inside.

The Spanish rookie Diaz-Graham scored nine points off the bench for Pitt, grabbed five rebounds, and also swatted away a Syracuse shot attempt. In a crucial play down the stretch, he dove on a loose ball, was fouled by a flying Judah Mintz, and calmly hit both free throws to keep the Panthers ahead.

The Orange kickstarted their comeback once Federiko hit the bench, but Diaz-Graham and Hinson held down the paint with minutes left to hang on for the victory.

FORMER PITT COMMIT MINTZ SHINES, MISSES FINAL SHOT

One name in the Syracuse starting lineup looked particularly familiar to Jeff Capel and his staff: Judah Mintz.

Mintz, a highly touted four-star prospect out of D.C., committed to Pitt in the summer of 2021, becoming the centerpiece of the Panthers’ 2022 recruiting class.

However, after being committed for just over five months and seeing the Panthers fall to The Citadel early in the season, Mintz decided to de-commit and take his talents elsewhere. He then landed at Syracuse, where he has shined so far this season. He showed off his talents on Tuesday night as well.

The two-time reigning ACC Rookie of the Week once again handled the scoring load for Syracuse, dropping a team-high 24 points on 7-for-17 shooting (8-for-12 free throws). Mintz was a pest at the top of the zone, grabbing five steals. He also dished out five assists and grabbed five rebounds in the narrow loss for the Orange.

In the end, Mintz had a crucial turnover and then followed it up with a missed game-tying jump-shot attempt at the buzzer. However, he still turned in a strong performance in a game that surely meant a lot to him and to both teams involved.

HUGLEY STILL OUT WITH NINE-DAY BREAK COMING FOR PITT

Last year’s top-scoring Panther, John Hugley, did not play for the second-straight game. Hugley hasn’t played since the Dec. 10 matchup against Sacred Heart in which he scored two points. He then missed the game against North Florida due to what Pitt described as personal reasons.

“There’s no injury concern,” Capel said about Hugley after the win over the Orange.

After the game, Capel also said that there is no current timetable for Hugley’s return.

He injured his knee weeks before the season and did not look up to speed in his first few games back for Pitt. Hugley and the Panthers now have a huge gap between their next game on Dec. 30 against North Carolina. Capel plans to send the team to their hometowns to celebrate the holidays.

“I’m welcoming the break,” Capel said. “It’s Christmas, man. Guys need to be with their families.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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