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Disaster Averted: Pitt defeats Syracuse in ACC Tournament opener, 72-71

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was fun, right?

Okay, more like a root canal. But in the end of Pitt's opening ACC Tournament game, the Panthers prevailed, topping Syracuse 72-71. Like many of you, I was at work today (hence the late recap). I was able to time a late lunch, however, and catch much of the second half, though.

We'll probably truly never know if Pitt needed to win that game to reach the NCAA Tournament. Personally, I do think the team was likely to squeak in, anyway. But the Panthers, according to most projections, didn't leave any room for that discussion as the victory should certainly be enough to get them into the Big Dance.

There will be some complaints by fans after this one. "Pitt nearly lost at the end despite a late 12-point lead. This team sucks." "Jamie Dixon can't coach." "Where were Michael Young and Jamel Artis?"

In reality, though, this is just a fantastic win. We can sit all day and diagnose the Panthers as not being perfect. Guess what? No one is. To beat not only a rival, but a potential NCAA Tournament team, three consecutive times in one season is not an easy thing to do. And when you consider that the Orange had extra incentive to get some revenge on Pitt and were playing (by most accounts) more for their NCAA Tournament lives than the Panthers, a loss isn't something that would have been that unexpected. Overall, Pitt showed up to play today and complaining about this win is akin to blaming the Steelers for only winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s and not five. It's the height of silliness to take anything other than elation away from this win. We don't know how deep the Panthers will be able to go in March Madness, but that's another discussion for another time. This win, at face value, was a very, very good one.

What I liked most was that Pitt didn't get the usual big games from their two best players and still found a way to win. Had you told me coming into the game that Young and Artis would have combined for 19 points and ten rebounds, I would have expected nothing short of a loss - perhaps even an ugly one. Pitt found other ways to win, though, and showed off a little of the depth we've been talking about this year.

Cameron Johnson was the star, of course, with a career-high 24 points. Bench teammate Ryan Luther was second in scoring with 13 and the pair even combined for more rebounds than Young and Artis, finishing with 11. I wondered aloud after the Georgia Tech game why Luther had been limited in minutes lately - particularly after producing when he's in there. Dixon gave him 23 today and he responded more than well. There's no reason he should be playing fewer than 20 minutes a game from here on out.

Luther is just a producer and rarely gives wasted minutes. Now, he makes mistakes - sometimes jaw-dropping ones. But at the end of a game, you can usually draw a pretty good correlation between his production and his minutes. He plays, he produces. That seems elementary, but isn't the case with everyone. Sheldon Jeter, for example, played 19 minutes and tallied two points and a rebound today. Jeter also missed the front end of a one-and-one at the end of the game when Pitt could have extended the lead, sending everyone virtually onto life support giving the Orange a last-second chance to win it. Sterling Smith played 17 against Georgia Tech in the finale and produced only two points. If you glance at his game-by-game stats, you'll see that's commonplace. There are plenty of examples where players eat up minutes and have little to show for it at the end. Luther isn't one of those guys.

And speaking of players that stepped up, James Robinson again was key for Pitt with 12 points, four assists, three rebounds, and a pair of steals. If you want to thank someone for being clutch and really ensuring Pitt got this win late, it would be him. With just over a minute to play he picked up a steal in the middle of a tie game and made a layup. After a Syracuse miss, he knocked down a jumper to put the Panthers up by four and put the game out of reach. Robinson once again proved why he's a must-have for Pitt at the end of games. No, he's not a great shooter and at this point, it's kind of ridiculous to criticize his scoring ability. We can also debate how much he's improved from his freshman year to senior year. But what cannot be disputed is that he is, more times than not, a money player for the Panthers in crunch time. He makes plays.

One other thing of note. I think Pitt really focused on taking better shots. Sure, there were still some unadvised three-pointers and I'm not sure the Panthers should be taking 20 of them all that often. But if you look down the line, you don't see guys that struggled terribly on offense. Young and Artis didn't score much, but shot 50% from the field (7-14). This wasn't a game where guys were eating up shots with nothing to show for it. The Panthers can't always live with those guys taking a backseat but it's much easier to stomach when you don't look at the box score and see 1-8, 2-7, 3-10, etc. Pitt made the most of its shots and, as a result, made almost 50% of them as a team.

As I said, Pitt should be in the NCAAs with this win. But, really, why stop now? A win over top ten North Carolina tomorrow isn't all that likely but would really improve the Panthers' seed. And flat out, if they can defeat the Tar Heels, it would prove them to be a viable contender to win the whole thing. I'd love to see Pitt come back out tomorrow and play as if there was no tomorrow. Defeating the Tar Heels would be something that most wouldn't see coming.

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