As I was watching the rematch of Pitt vs. Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center, I came to this conclusion: Pitt wants to win this game. Although it didn’t take Einstein to figure that out as they beat the Orange 80-75, what got my attention about them was their disposition. They were prepared, they were hungry, and they weren’t going to be denied.
Let’s be honest; it’s been a long time that I’ve been able to say that about this 2016-17 Pitt team that’s struggled this season. In fact, they’ve struggled so bad that they lost eight straight games, (including that awful 106-51 game to Louisville) and had spent the past few weeks in the last place of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
Most of those losses were a result of their heart not being in it, and mentally ‘checking out’ of games at times. Of course, they played a lot of teams that were better than them, but you can tell when a team is simply not prepared to play and are sloppy. This Panthers team has the worst team since the Ralph Willard’s teams back in the 1990’s, which I described as the ‘Dark Ages’ of basketball.
To be honest, we’ve seen some of those ‘Dark Ages’ most of this season.
But to be honest, the Panthers had been playing better ball in the past four games, starting with the 80-70 loss to North Carolina, the 72-64 loss to Duke and then on Tuesday the 83-72 win vs. Boston College that snapped their 8-game losing streak. And then this game in which the Panthers not only beat the Orange, they avenged their earlier loss to Syracuse in which they started off sloppy and lost 77-66.
I had a feeling that Pitt was going to win the rematch, mostly because they’ve always played Syracuse well. They’re a longstanding rival that dates back to the Big East games, and they entered the ACC together in 2013. Not only does Pitt know Syracuse, they know how to beat Syracuse, and this game was a good example.
Although Pitt trailed 7-1 to began the game, the Panthers had a look in their eye that they weren’t losing this game. A 3-pointer by G Cameron Johnson and a jumper by F Sheldon Jeter quickly got Pitt back into the game and only trailed 7-6 The Orange later led 13-8, and once again back came to Pitt as they closed their lead to 13-10. The Orange led 15-12 and back came Pitt, but this time they would tie it at 17.
And then Jeter made another basket to give the Panthers a 19-17 lead with 9:02 left in the first half and they never trailed the rest of the game. G Chris Jones and Johnson hit 3-pointers, and Pitt led 27-20 before the Orange stormed back with 3-pointer of their own. Syracuse got as close as 27-26 before F Mike Young, Johnson and F Jamel Artis added to their lead, and when the first half came to an end, Pitt led 35-28.
One of Pitt’s biggest challenges had been playing worse in the second half (other than North Carolina), but in this game, they began the second half strong as they stormed to a 41-30 lead, their largest lead in several games. Slowly but surely, HC Jim Boheim’s Orange would come back, especially when the Panthers began to look like this year’s Panthers: Turning the ball over, missing shots and allowing the other team to score without much effort as the Orange closed Pitt’s lead to 47-36.
But it didn’t last long because those hustling Panthers would extend their lead to 49-39. With 8:49 left to play, Pitt led 56-46 until the Orange roared back and only trailed Pitt 58-51. But the Panthers would only allow the Orange to get so close as they continued to pull away as time ticked away. The Panthers led 71-61, but back came the Orange as they closed Pitt’s lead to 74-70 with 56 seconds left. But Jeter’s final two free throws proved to be the dagger for the Orange as Pitt secured the 80-75 victory, improving their record to 14-11 overall and 3-9 in the ACC.
Player of the Game: I give it to Young, who has once again proved that as he goes, so does the Panthers. One game after he tied his career-high of 30, he scored 22 and grabbed 11 rebounds. Sure Johnson had one more point, and Jeter grabbed two more boards, it’s a fact that Young is the heart and soul of the Panthers. When he’s down, Pitt goes down, but when he’s up, Pitt is unstoppable. If he keeps this type of performance up, I can see him being a favorite for ACC Player of the Year.
I’m usually hard on Johnson, but in this game, #23 was pretty awesome. Not only did he lead all scorers with 22 points, but he also did so with his specialty: the 3-point shot. Johnson hit six threes which gave very timely, especially when Syracuse was closing in. When Johnson’s on, he’s on fire. I just wish he stayed like that.
Jeter was pretty impressive too as he added 14 points to go with those 11 rebounds. He and Johnson provided much-needed hustle for the Panthers in this game and were responsible for Pitt winning this game. Artis still hasn’t been the Artis that scored 43 points, but he added 16 points and a career-high ten assists. Some feel that he’s looking like a true point guard, I don’t agree, but he’s certainly gotten better at that position. Jones would add 7 points, three rebounds and three assists off the bench.
For the Orange, G Andrew White III and G John Gillion each led them with 20 points, with White getting three three-pointers. F Tyler Robinson led with six rebounds as the Orange falls to 15-10(8-5 ACC) and ends their 5-game losing streak. This game doesn’t affect their NCAA Tournament chances, but it’s an eye-opener as they’ve now lost to one of the worst teams in the conference.
The Panthers are now out of the last place in the conference and to be honest, it would take them winning the ACC Tournament to make the Big Dance. But I think their agenda should be to finish strong in their remaining six games, which includes games vs. nationally ranked Virginia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina, which is a rematch.
Pitt HC Kevin Stallings had this to say about his team “I feel like we’re playing harder. I feel like we’re competing harder. We’re playing more together. I’m proud of them. We’re playing better. It sure feels better walking in here today than it has the last couple of times.”
I totally agree with Coach. Let’s hope we see more of thiseffort.
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