ef·fortˈefərt/nounnoun: effort; plural noun: effortsa vigorous or determined attempt.
Earlier this week, I wrote about Pitt needing to keep their foot on the pedal, so to speak, and avoid letdowns against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to close out the regular season.
Seems the Panthers didn't get the memo.
Pitt's latest disappointment came at the hands of a now 17-13 Virginia Tech team as the Panthers fell 65-61 on the road on Wednesday.
Here's the thing. A Pitt loss against a Hokies team that played out of their minds would have been salvageable. Few would scold the Panthers too much for losing a road game against a conference opponent that played well. But that didn't happen. Virginia Tech shot a reasonable but not overwhelming 44% from the field. They got to the line plenty but were horrible once they got there, making a Shaq-like 54% of their free throws. The Hokies were only 6-19 from three-point range. Pitt outrebounded them and had more assists, despite shooting terribly, which is sort of hard to do. Add it all up and there's nothing to suggest that Virginia Tech was unbeatable.
The real problem was Pitt's effort, which was downright deplorable.
The weird thing is that Pitt seemed to be doing fine early. They got off to a good start and seemed determined in the first few minutes to set the tone. The Panthers led much of the first half and held a 19-10 lead early on. And (we'll get to more on this later) that was despite missing six three-pointers by that point - in reality, Pitt could have had an even bigger lead. At that point, despite the misses from beyond the arc, you feel like head coach Jamie Dixon has done his job in keeping these guys relatively grounded after the team's big win over Duke last weekend. But Virginia Tech clawed back, despite not playing all that well themselves, and took a one-point lead at the half. You might expect that sort of thing would frustrate the team and encourage them to play better in the second.
That, um, didn't happen.
The Panthers made only four field goals in the first ten-plus minutes to start the second half and Virginia Tech kept the lead for most of that time. While The Hokies played better in the second half, Pitt couldn't keep up.
Many people will talk about the free throw disparity - Virginia Tech shot 35 of them to Pitt's 23. But at the end of the day, the Hokies made only three more so that wasn't the biggest problem for me. The real issue was the Panthers' utter insistence on jacking up long-range shot after long-range shot.
Pitt was a miserable 3-21 from three-point range and had the confidence of Steph Curry, even as shot after shot fell short and despite the team having no real success there of any kind. James Robinson, (who, by the way, I recently gushed about) combined with Jamel Artis to go 1-11 there. Everyone else went 2-10. That's on the players, that's on the coach, that's on everybody, really. The team has to be more self-aware and not rely on shooting themselves out of slumps when the shots aren't falling. The problem with that mindset is that it's just lazy. You don't need to make three-pointers to keep you in games, you need to put real effort into the offense. That means finding ways to get the ball in the paint, ways to get to the line, ball movement, etc. Too often the Panthers settled on three-pointers and that was clearly the wrong strategy.
Effort, effort, effort was the theme tonight. The hilarious (okay, not so hilarious) thing was to see Pitt's effort at the end of the game. Trailing by ten with about three minutes left, the Panthers played desperately, doing whatever they could to defend and score. Perhaps such an effort, say, you know, at the beginning of the half would have netted a different result. Down ten with about three minutes left, Pitt staged a furious rally, cutting it to three with under thirty seconds left. But an errant three-pointer from James Robinson and added free throw by Virginia Tech sealed things.
The thing I got out of that was Virginia Tech was extremely rattled in that stretch. Increased intensity earlier in the half very easily could have gotten the Hokies out of their game. Pitt's problem was that they merely ran out of time. Too little, too late, the old saying goes. All teams play with more desperation at the end of a close game, but the Panthers' effort in the final minutes from the rest of the half was like night and day. Pitt's players barely flinched in the final 20 minutes and were like the Energizer Bunny at the end of the game. That was disappointing, to say the least.
Will this game on its own throw Pitt out of the NCAA Tournament? No. The Panthers can still salvage this road trip and a 21st win at Georgia Tech should get them into the Big Dance, if they're not already there.
However, instead of a team playing for its collective postseason life, the Panthers didn't look the part. We can argue about the degree of ugliness of that game and the amount of hurt that will be caused by a road loss to a 17-13 team, but this isn't a good loss. Some context is appropriate here - remember, this is a team Pitt previously destroyed by 19 points earlier this year. The Hokies, by all indications, will not make the NCAA Tournament. And as I mentioned in the gamethread and on Twitter, the atmosphere in the arena hardly made this a difficult road game. Pitt should have won it and, with a better effort, likely would have.