It appeared as though the Pittsburgh Panthers had sugarplums dancing in their heads on Wednesday evening. They barely sleptwalked past the Western Carolina Catamounts who entered the Petersen Events Center with hopes of getting an early Christmas present.
The recipe for an upset was in the making: A very disinterested Pitt team outside of junior forward Jamel Artis and senior point guard James Robinson, early foul trouble for graduate transfer forward Rafael Maia, an uncharacteristically sloppy version of junior forward Michael Young, and a fast start. West Carolina rode the hot shooting of senior forward Torrion Brummitt to a 11-4 lead by the 15:28 mark.
When the Panthers weren't turning the ball over, they were able to convert from the floor to get back in the game. A jumper by junior forward Sheldon Jeter saw them take a 17-16 advantage coming out of the under-12 media timeout. Both teams traded baskets for the remainder of the half. Senior guard Rhett Harrelson made timely jumpers for the Catamounts that never allowed Pitt to take more than a six-point advantage. By halftime, the Panthers led 37-32.
On the sluggish start to the game, Artis said, "I don't think we were sluggish. We didn't come out with the aggressiveness we talked about before the game."
Despite an early three-pointer by Harrelson to open the second half, some inspired play by Artis pushed their lead to nine on a transition layup off a steal at the 17:51 mark. Western Carolina wasn't about to let Pitt pull away. While Harrelson may have kept the Catamounts in the game to that point, he had no problem passing the baton to senior guard Mike Brown, their leading scorer, and freshman guard Elijah Pughsley.
A brown jumper cut their deficit to three at the 13:40 mark, while a layup plus the foul by Pughsley minutes later kept Western Carolina within a possession. The Catamounts took the lead on a coast-to-coast basket by sophomore guard David Peterson off of a lazy pass.
Pughsley helped extend their lead to seven thanks to back-to-back three-pointers, and a pair of free throws. The Panthers were able to crawl back into the game from the charity stripe, and mostly Artis. His floater in the lane tied the game at 61 with just under five minutes in the game.
The rest of the players started caring from that point on as well. Junior guard Chris Jones connected on a triple at the 2:37 mark to give Pitt their first lead since the 9:37 mark, then Jeter converted a three-point play off a monstrous two-handed dunk to extend their lead to five points, 71-66.
On the spark that Jeter provided, he said, "Honestly, I just wanted to go in and play hard."
Harrelson connected on one last triple to keep things somewhat interesting, but the Panthers were able to ice the game from the free throw line. They crawled to a 79-73 victory.
Pitt was led by a game-high 29 points from Artis on an extremely efficient 10-14 from the field. He also led all players with eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end. Robinson was a steady rock for the team. He nearly registered a double-double with 11 points and nine assists.
Harrelson led Western Carolina with 21 points, including 6-9 from long distance. Brown recorded 13 points but it took him 18 attempts to get there.
As a team, the Panthers only managed to connect on 2-13 on triples, but converted on 29-33 attempts from the charity stripe.
They'll need to be much sharper against the Syracuse Orange (9-3) next Wednesday if they expect to open ACC play with a strong start. While the players may have looked past the Catamounts today, Robinson was confident that won't be the case against Syracause, "We're going to be ready."
Head coach Jamie Dixon also had a somewhat positive outlook on the scare at home, "We haven't had any close games since the Purdue game, so maybe that was a good thing to go through."