I'm not sure it's exactly a marquee win, but Pitt picked up a very strong victory against Syracuse in the ACC opener, winning 72-61 at home on Wednesday. The Orange aren't a ranked team but when you shoot 40% as the Panthers did, to still win by double digits against a conference rival is hard to complain about.
If you caught the game, you know that it wasn't easy for Pitt. The game was tied at the break and the Panthers trailed by as much as eight in the second half. Heck, Pitt trailed by one with less than four minutes left in the game. Fortunately, they had a little left in the tank and closed the game out with a 14-2 run, including a thunderous Sheldon Jeter dunk in transition, which was pretty much the exclamation point.
Starring tonight was Jamel Artis, who just missed out on a triple double. Artis, the conference's Player of the Week last week, had 18 points, nine boards, and eight assists to go along with a pair of steals. He and Young (15 points and seven rebounds) continue to make for a very difficult combo for opposing teams. A big shoutout, too, to Jeter, who not only had the big dunk but tied Artis for the game-high in rebounds with nine to go with 11 points. Jeter is a very good option to have off the bench and as I've said before, could easily be a guy starting for several teams.
The big reason the Panthers were able to win despite a subpar shooting night? Their work on the boards. Pitt crushed Syracuse on the glass, 43-25. It was so ugly, in fact, that the 19 offensive rebounds they had were more than Syracuse's 17 defensive boards. That's not a typo - Pitt literally grabbed the rebound off their own shot more often than not.
One reason the Panthers struggled tonight? I don't think the game plan on offense was all that great. Well, either that or the players didn't follow it. Pitt launched 23 three-pointers against Syracuse's zone despite struggling from there, making only six. Syracuse is undersized and I don't think the Panthers worked hard enough to get to the basket. I'm a fan of Pitt opening things up on offense and what they've done behind the arc is one reason why they're 11-1. But I think they could have done a little better of a job attacking the basket and trying to exploit the Orange's frontcourt.
Those shooting woes were largely the fault of the guards. Starters James Robinson and Sterling Smith had a very off night and were a dismal 3-16 from the field, including 2-11 from three-point range. Smith in particular has been in a very rough stretch, shooting only 22% over his last five games. Smith is a dangerous three-point shooter and a strong rebounder, but you wonder if he could eventually get bumped from the starting rotation in favor of Chris Jones, who actually averages more points and assists per game despite playing fewer minutes. I mentioned that thought before and it's something to monitor if Smith continues to struggle with his shot.
Overall, though, it's hard to not like what Pitt did when you consider how poorly they shot the ball. The Panthers played pretty solid defense, rebounded exceptionally well, and just as importantly, really manned up in crunch time and dominated the final few minutes of play.
Speaking of manning up, it would be foolish to not credit Syracuse on a tremendous effort. They came into a very tough environment and hung with Pitt for 37 minutes. I think they simply ran out of gas at the end and Pitt just turned it up a notch. But several times in the second half they had a chance to fold and just continued to play their game. Again, they were right there with only a few minutes left. I'm not a fan of Syracuse in the least but hats off to those guys for a solid effort.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out how great the crowd was. Not everyone was impressed as Doug Gottlieb somehow confused the raucous atmosphere with the arena being half-full. But in reality, the crowd was great and obviously the Pete wasn't low on energy. Pitt trailed by eight in the second half, but all it took were a couple of baskets to get everyone loud again. They deserve a lot of credit for the win and just bringing all sorts of energy.
Again, this isn't a top ten win. But when you come away with an 11-point victory against a good ACC team while struggling to score as much as Pitt did, there is a lot to like here.