With what looked like it would be a potential blood bath, a lot of Pitt basketball fans understandably took the night off from the game against North Carolina. But the Panthers turned in a surprisingly good effort against the No. 12 Tar Heels, and if nothing else, kept the fans that were watching engaged for the entire game before losing, 80-78.
That's not to say Pitt played a perfect game. There were defensive lapses and Pitt was outrebounded -7 on the boards. One particularly ugly sequence came when a failed box out just before halftime allowed the Tar Heels to get a bucket at the buzzer to extend their lead. But I attribute a lot of the defensive problems to simply not being great at that part of the game rather than a lack of effort. Pitt has shown both this year and tonight's defensive effort wasn't really one of not trying in my book. Michael Young, for example, got beaten easily on defense a couple of times late in the second half, but he's simply not a great defensive player. Complaining about the one-on-one defense at this point is the equivalent of banging your head against the wall and expecting it not to hurt. I have a harder time being upset at that than I do when the team looks like it flat out isn't putting forth the effort they can.
Offensively, of course, Pitt did just about everything they could. They shot 56% from the field and 45% from three-point range. Equally as important is that they made a bunch of clutch shots. The Panthers also turned the ball over a manageable ten times and would have beaten most teams they played tonight. Cameron Johnson had a career-high 24 points and Young and Jamel Artis added 36. Still, it wasn't quite enough. The problem was that North Carolina was red hot, too, and shot 50% from the field themselves. Part of that was defense and part of it was good shooting.
Pitt gave themselves a chance to win at the end, trailing by only two points. But the Panthers had to go the length of the court and couldn't end up with anything better than an off-balance, fadeaway three-pointer by Artis that wasn't even close. Pitt only needed a two there and a speedster like Josh Newkirk (I know, perfect timing, right?) would have been helpful since he may have been able to get to the basket or close to it. But now we're just playing the 'what if' game.
The free throw line sort of played into the final score, but things weren't called nearly as lopsided as it might appear. Pitt shot five free throw to North Carolina's 19 but eight of the Tar Heels' attempts came in the final 33 seconds when the Panthers were intentionally fouling. Take away those and there's much less of a disparity. The refs, as a whole, let them play and I didn't have an issue with that.
If you're a silver lining type of person, that Pitt could have called it quits numerous times in the game but didn't do that had to be encouraging. Several times, the Panthers looked like they would let things spiral out of control but things still came down to the last shot. They nearly trailed by double digits at a couple of points in the first half. They trailed by nine a couple of times in the second half. Just when they looked to be on the verge of slipping away, they'd hit some really big shots and stay in it.
Look, I get it. It's a loss. But the narrative that merely says, 'Well, they were better but still lost so it doesn't matter' would be lazy and misguided. Yes, it's a loss. And yes, the result is technically no better than the other losses that preceded this one. But it would be irresponsible to crush the team for a lack of effort as we've done for the past couple of weeks and then largely discount a great effort tonight against a Top 15 team simply because they didn't quite pull off a massive upset.
That's not to say that this isn't a frustrating year or that the occasional solid effort should force us to overlook the dumpster fires the team has thrown out there recently. And it's even harder to stomach this year when you consider how well they've played against ranked Maryland, Notre Dame, Virginia, and North Carolina teams. As we've said before, this team isn't very deep but the starters are talented and some of the efforts this year have been flat out unacceptable. But keeping things within the context of this game, you have to feel pretty good about the effort given tonight and the team deserves credit for that.
I'm not even crazy about the idea that this was a wasted effort. While it resulted in a loss, perhaps the team's encouraging play tonight will give them some much-needed confidence.
I don't know if Pit's season will turn around but tonight can be a good start if the players insist on showing up like this the rest of the way. Now it's up to them to finish the rest of the year.
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