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Pitt falls to No. 14 Iowa, 69-68

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NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt wasn’t expected to give Iowa much of a run tonight in their ACC-Big Ten Challenge game. Apparently, the Panthers didn’t get the memo, though. Pitt played Iowa to a back-and-forth game all night and, despite a massive disadvantage at the free throw line, nearly pulled off a shocker, losing 69-68 on the road against the No. 14 Hawkeyes.

For Pitt, it was a tale of two halves, though you might not know it from the score. Pitt played efficiently in the first half, took care of the ball, and just made shots, on their way to a six-point halftime lead. In the second half, they were out of control, turned the ball over more, and even when they did slow things down, just couldn’t get a lot going on offense. Thing is, the defense was good enough that they were able to hang around.

Pitt was right there at the end and, with the ball and about ten seconds left, had a great chance to win it. But Trey McGowens took sort of a rushed shot in traffic and, after a miss, Sidy N’Dir missed a fadeaway jumper and that was it. It was kind of a microcosm of many of their possessions in the second half, seemingly with little direction and not much of a plan.

I’m assuming the Panthers didn’t have any timeouts, though I’d have to go back and verify. But Pitt was really out of control on that last sequence and would have been better served by trying to get a good shot. Jared Wilson-Frame, for one thing, was wide open because of the attention McGowens drew. And with Xavier Johnson having fouled out, that’s probably who you want taking that shot. A more patient (and experienced) McGowens probably kicks the ball out there. But, hey, first road game, a freshman in that situation, it’s easy to see how Pitt wasn’t a little more refined there.

Games never come down to just one thing. But if you’re looking for the problem area tonight, look no further than the free throw line. Pitt put Iowa in the bonus, I don’t know, near the halfway point in the first half? They repeated that in the second and Iowa was in the bonus before even the ten-minute mark. Add it up and they were in the bonus for something like half of the entire game. No, really.

The result, as you might suspect, was a wild disparity at the free throw line. Iowa was 19-28 from the line while Pitt was only 8-13. You get a 15-shot disadvantage there and it’s incredibly hard to make that up.

I don’t know. There were a lot of weak calls on both sides. But, well, when you’ve got that kind of disadvantage, it’s easy to see that Pitt was the team that got penalized a lot more. Some of that was Pitt committing a silly foul here and there. But I also just thought the officials completely lost control of this game. You had what looked to be makeup calls, questionable calls, and some calls that were way off. Throw it all in the mixing bowl and Pitt undoubtedly got the short end of the stick. And while I’ll concede some of that is Pitt’s inability to change the way they played, their inexperience, and legitimate fouls, some of it was just officials making head-scratching calls.

You can live with missed calls. They happen in every game. The problem is that when teams are in the bonus and living at the foul line, every weak call is a dagger and it snowballs from there. You can play legitimately decent defense, as Pitt did, and still not make up any ground because an opponent is getting to the line every other time down the floor. That’s just too much to make up.

The loss wasn’t purely on that, obviously. You can’t score 22 points in the second half and expect to win. Pitt’s offense just went MIA and wasn’t enough to make up for Iowa experiencing offensive struggles, too. The Panthers didn’t make their possessions count for nearly enough in the second half and, my guess is that Jeff Capel is probably telling his guys some iteration of that as I type this. But that work at the foul line didn’t help.

Overall, Pitt exceeded expectations here, obviously. You’re never happy with a loss and it’s frustrating to have been this close. But as a Pitt fan with low expectations on this team this year, it’s hard to be upset about how the team played. Similarly, I wasn’t impressed with what Iowa had to offer. That’s not meant as a shot even in the slightest. But, man, at home against a young, inexperienced team and in the bonus for literally half the game? And you squeak by as a Top 15 team by a single point? If you’re Iowa and you’re coming away encouraged by this game, I’d be a little confused by that.

Frustrating to see Pitt not pull out a win here but, 6-1 with this group and nearly a Top 15 win on the road? You sort of take that as a fan.

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