Pitt headed home with an uncertain future
By: Kevin Wheeler
Pitt’s most notable weakness all season has been their perimeter defense. On Wednesday, another guard took advantage of it in a big way.
Within the first eight minutes of the game, NC State guard Anthony “Cat” Barber sliced and diced through the Panthers’ defense almost effortlessly on his way to 11 points over that time span. The Wolfpack opened up an eight-point lead and never looked back on their way to an 81-70 win over the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second round of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, NC, and their sixth win in their past seven games.
NC State head coach Mark Gottfried saw Pitt’s weakness from the tip, and said he knew Pitt “had trouble containing [Barber] and stopping his penetration.” But Barber planned on playing aggressive before the ball was tossed up for the tip.
“Teammates and coaches were telling me to be me, and they need me down the stretch,” Barber said, who finished the night with a career-high 34 points, on 9-13 shooting and five assists. “So, today I came out with a high sense of urgency and confidence that I’m going to put the team on my back, and that’s what I did.”
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon and his Panthers squad won the rebounding margin (33-29) and bench points (21-8), but this loss went beyond the stat sheet. Pitt came out looking sluggish defensively and struggled to keep up with the high-octane back court combination of Cat Barber and Trevor Lacey, who combined for 55 of the Wolfpack’s 81 points. After being down by 14 at the half, Pitt fought back at times in the second half and came within eight at the 2-minute mark.
“The guys kept battling,” Dixon said. “We got down. We kept trying to change some things up and got it closer, but just didn’t have enough in us. We came up short.”
It was like déjà vu all over again during the post game press conference with Dixon, once again, pointing to his team’s defense as the reason for a Panthers loss.
“Defensively we haven’t been good enough and we put ourselves in this position,” he said. “It’s been pretty clear to me from the start, we’ve gotten better, but it just hasn’t happened. So that’s why we’re where we at.”
Senior guard Cameron Wright knew coming into the match up with NC State that it could possibly be his final conference tournament game. He finished the night leading the Panthers in scoring with 19 points.
With the loss, Pitt’s chances at an at-large berth for the NCAA Tournament are slim-to-none. The Panthers will have to turn toward smaller postseason tournaments like the NIT and the CBI if they want to continue playing past this point. Even with that in mind, Wright’s leadership didn’t waver.
“Whether we play in a different tournament or not, I’m just going to talk to the guys and tell them we still have to keep our heads up for whatever we do,” Wright said. “I just need to try and talk to those guys, [tell them to] keep their heads up and remember this feeling, so they’ll never feel it again.”
Dixon has made the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the past 11 years as Pitt’s head coach. This year, however, that run will likely come to an end.
“We’re used to being in the NCAA Tournament,” Dixon said. “We play for that, but we knew what our challenges were and we didn’t get it done. It’s disappointing. You have challenges, different things occurred this year, but I thought we kept battling, kept fighting, and we were written off.”
Dixon’s support for his unusually under-achieving team remained steadfast.
“I’m proud of these guys,” he said. “They’ve worked hard. They come in and they practice hard, but we just haven’t been able to get to where we need to be in the past defensively.”
Pitt’s future this season has yet to be determined, but we know for sure that they will be heading home from Greensboro without and ACC title and disappointment on their minds.
Selections for the NCAA Tournament, NIT and CBI are on Sunday, March 15th.