Pitt pulled out a thrilling 75-73 win over Saint Louis on Wednesday. The victory moves the Panthers to 6-0 on the season for the first time since 2013. The loss was also the first of the year for Saint Louis, who falls to 4-1.
It was a back and forth game all afternoon. Pitt held a seven-point lead near the end of the first half but the game was mostly within a few points the entire time. Freshman Xavier Johnson led Pitt with 20 points and it was his second straight 20-point game. Averaging 16.7 points per game right now, you could make a case for him as the team’s best player. Most would probably concede that to Jared Wilson-Frame right now but he’s cooled off the last two games considerably after a hot start. Johnson is heating up and is doing more with each passing game.
Johnson was key in clutch time, too, making two late free throws to put the Panthers up by four and effectively end the game with a few seconds left. Malik Ellison had 13 for Pitt to back him up, as did Sidy N’Dir off the bench. Terrell Brown had a nice showing in limited time (six points, eight rebounds in only 16 minutes). The Panthers got a bit of a break as Saint Louis’ leading scorer, Tramaine Isabell, missed the first half with an unspecified situation. He played in the second half and scored eight points for them.
I was off this afternoon so caught most of this game. The Panthers continue to look more comfortable out there. They had 33 turnovers in their first two games but have not had more than ten in any of the last four (including only nine today). The phrase ‘These guys don’t play like freshmen’ is already starting to get old but, man, it really holds true. The entire team is not made up of freshmen, obviously, but this is a very young and inexperienced squad. Even the older guys have not had a ton of playing time in D-I competition. This group already plays with a lot of poise and are only going to improve in that aspect with more experience.
Despite winning, Pitt had a few problems in this game. First, they faced a pretty physical Saint Louis team, who had a big edge on the glass, winning the rebounding battle, 43-35. As I wrote earlier this year, I expect that will be a similar theme since there’s just not a ton of size here. The Panthers, like Saint Louis, also struggled to score points down the stretch. Pitt had only eight points in the last 6:30 of the game. That, fortunately, was better than Saint Louis, who had only seven during that span. But most times in a close game, you’ll need to score more than that to close the deal.
Still, the Panthers also did some things well. As mentioned, they didn’t turn the ball over too much. They also got to the free throw line a ton, making 23 free throws to only ten for Saint Louis. And I thought the team played reasonably good on defense. Really solid effort in a game that most didn’t expect them to win.
One thing to watch is Pitt’s rotation as the year goes on. The Panthers used only eight guys today and I think that might be the fewest they’ve used all season. No Khameron Davis. No Peace Ilegomah. No Shamiel Stevenson. Those guys, holdovers from last year, have seen fewer minutes and could be getting squeezed out of the rotation. Perhaps if Pitt runs into some foul trouble or suffers an injury, one could jump in. I also expect we’ll see Ilegomah in there if the Panthers play some bigger teams. But, by and large, I’m not sure what kind of a role those guys have going forward. I know the idea of the team playing a larger rotation has been bandied about by fans but I’m not sure that happens. This could very much be an eight-man or, at most, nine-man rotation.
And if you’re a Pitt fan, that isn’t the worst thing in the world, either. Getting these guys experience is important and, even beyond that, you want them playing on the floor with each other. Trying to squeeze guys in just to get them minutes doesn’t really do much good. I do think Pitt should try to play Stevenson, Davis, and Ilegomah when they can, just because you don’t want to have to rely on them in the case of an injury and ask them to play when they’ve been sitting for five, six, or seven games in a row. But, like any team, you want your best players playing the majority of the minutes and as long as that happens, I can’t complain.
The game could be a sign of things to come once Pitt starts playing tougher and bigger teams. Wins will be by narrower margins an there are clearly going to be losses. When you play as many guards as Pitt does, losing the battles on the glass is going to be a difficult thing to offset.
Still, you absolutely have to like what you saw here. Pitt was poised down the stretch, even without scoring many points, and made their free throws to seal the win. They will face tougher competition than Saint Louis but, in their first game away from home playing a physical team on a day before Thanksgiving break, that’s just a really nice win.
Next up will be a real test - a road game at No. 20 Iowa next Tuesday.