I’m sure you’re heard the expression ‘It’s the little things that count,’ right? Well, those little things are so critical that it can determine the outcome of a situation, good or bad. Such is the case in sports when it can result in victory or defeat for a team, and it’s truly the case of the Pitt Panthers basketball team as they let one slip away in a 78-77 loss to #24 Notre Dame in overtime.
To be honest, the game shouldn’t have gone to overtime, but it happened because of the same things that the Panthers continue to struggle with: Playing defense, turnovers and making the key basket to put away the opponent, but the one they that hurt the Panthers was their inability to make free throws, especially in the second half. But the ‘little things’ that I’m referring to were the free throws, which failed them when they needed them in the second half, despite shooting a strong 78% from the line.
I will give the Panthers credit for not just hanging with the Fighting Irish but outplaying them as well. They had them on the ropes a couple of times because of using what’s essential for them to win: Scoring, especially from leading scorers Mike Young and Jamel Artis, who both had another set of stellar games. Young carried the team on his back most the game as he finished with 25 points and four three-pointers (which honestly surprised me), and Artis shook off his first-half struggles and caught fire in the second half to also finish with 25 points. But what also stood out with Artis’ performance was the fact that he had five three-pointers, including 3 in the second half. The Panthers needed Artis when they couldn’t buy a basket, and he came through. He gets no complaints from me.
But my issues are with their inability to put away teams, which we know have been plaguing them all season. What’s interesting is that during non-conference games, even though they failed to close out opponents, they still won the game (see Pitt 112, Marshall 106, Pitt 84, Buffalo 79 for examples), but it’s not so easy with teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) whom the Panthers will now play the rest of the season. The talent is stronger, and the teams are better than who we’ve seen Pitt play so far this year. The bottom line is that the Panthers can’t afford to make those same mistakes if they are trying to make a splash in the ACC, where 7 of those teams are ranked in the AP Top 24, including Notre Dame.
The Panthers punched the Fighting Irish in the mouth after the opening tip, getting 3-pointers from Young and Artis. And eventually had a 19-9 lead with over 13 minutes to play. Then Notre Dame stormed back with baskets from F VJ Beachum and F Bonzie Colson, who would be a thorn in the Panthers side all game as he dominated the paint and finished with 21 points.
Pitt maintained their first-half lead thanks to G Cameron Johnson, who hit two three-pointers and finished the half with 11 points, which were crucial because Artis was still going through his struggles. It was honestly easy to think that Pitt was about to blow Notre Dame out when they led 27-19, but on the flip side, we knew better than to think that, because we are aware this year’s Panthers, and apparently so did Notre Dame as they would eventually tie Pitt 29-29 and then 34-34 late in the first-half. But with seconds left on the clock, F Sheldon Jeter would help Pitt save face in the first-half as his jumper at the buzzer gave Pitt a 36-34 halftime lead.
But that was the first half. In the second half, the Panthers would maintain their lead, but they could only get as far as 5 points as the Fighting Irish kept well, fighting and then the Panthers started struggling like, the Panthers. First came the scoring efforts as it seemed like there was a transparent lid on the basket as they tried everything from jumpers and drives through the lane, and it would just clang off the rim and eventually into the hands of the Fighting Irish. Then it was the defense, in which they continued to get abused by Colson, F Steve Vasturia and G Matt Farrell, who truly capitalized off the Panthers miscues. Pitt started beating themselves and then Notre Dame started beating Pitt as they went on an 11-0 run and took a 60-52 lead with 7:43 left in the game.
After Pitt HC Kevin Stallings had called a timeout, Artis put on his cape and became a much-needed Superman for Pitt as he helped the Panthers storm back and eventually take a 67-62 lead with over 2 minutes to play. But the Fighting Irish once again stormed back and closed Pitt’s lead to 67-66. Then Johnson began to struggle as his hot shooting was missing in the second half. He missed a crucial free throw and made the other, giving the Panthers a 68-66 lead, which eventually Notre Dame would tie, and then he also missed several shots to help get the lead back. Young tried a jumper at the buzzer that fails short sending this game into overtime.
They call it ‘Free Basketball,’ but I call it Unnecessary Basketball, because all Johnson had to do was make one more free throw, and the Panthers win, but that wasn’t the case as OT began. Notre Dame would take the early lead before Johnson would finally wake up and give Pitt a 73-70 lead and then Jeter’s layup extended Pitt’s lead to 75-70, which gave me optimism that they would pull this one out.
But Notre Dame had other ideas as they would eventually tie the game on a 3-pointer by Vasturia. But then Artis would give the Panthers a 77-75 lead, but I felt that it wasn’t enough. A 3-pointer would’ve given them a nice cushion, especially when Vasturia slid across the floor (no ‘traveling’ call refs?) and hit an another 3-pointer to give his Fighting Irish a 78-77 lead. With over 2 seconds left to play. The Panthers had one more chance, but F Ryan Luther’s inbound pass was intercepted by the Fighting Irish who held onto to win the game 78-77. Pitt would fall to 11-3(0-1 ACC), and Notre Dame would improve to 12-2 (1-0 ACC).
“I thought was a great college basketball game. Unfortunately, they made one more play than we did.”-Said Stallings. “We need some more offense from people.” Young and Artis can’t do it alone, no matter how hard they try. It’s going to take a team effort to make a splash in conference play and hope to get an invite to the NCAA Tournament.
“There are 17 more games that are going to come flying at us like that one, and none of them are going to be easy,” said Stallings. So, true, but when Pitt focuses on the ‘little things,’ they will see some W’s in those 17 games. If not, they will see what they saw in this game.
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