Pitt was far from impressive in tonight’s game against Kansas State. But sometimes you don’t need to be at your best to win and, despite not playing all that well, the Panthers pulled out a 63-59 victory in the Fort Myers Tip-Off. This was the definition of gutting out a win, folks.
We can point to any number of plays in the game that were important but the biggest stretch obviously came in the game’s final seconds. With Pitt (5-2) trailing by one, Xavier Johnson made a pressure-packed layup and then drew a crucial charge at the other end before knocking down two free throws to help seal the win. For Kansas State (4-1), it was their first loss of the year. Ryan Murphy and Eric Hamilton led Pitt with 13 points each while Johnson and Justin Champagnie added 12 each.
Pitt was 1-16 from three-point range, turned the ball over 21 times (including eight by Johnson), and had only two assists. Like, two assists for the entire game. I can’t overestimate just how astounding a stat like that is.
If you had told me that coming in, I would have assumed a double digit loss. But Kansas State wasn’t particularly impressive and the Panthers still shot somewhat well, making nearly 47% of their shots overall while outrebounding Kansas State, 40-30. Hamilton had 12 of those 40 rebounds, despite coming off the bench and he has to be a guy that must continue to get minutes, in my opinion.
The Panthers, for their part, did all they could to lose the game down the stretch. After coming back from an early deficit, Pitt actually went up by six late in the game. But they had a host of gaffes, including turnovers, missed shots, and missed rebounds to quickly lose that lead. But the Wildcats missed a few shots late and had a turnover down the stretch just before Xavier Johnson’s heroics.
The final minute of the game will be what is remembered. But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that Pitt had to claw back at the end of the first half to even get back into the game. Pitt trailed by as much as ten in the first half and went on a late run to cut that lead to two at halftime. If they don’t do that and go into the half down ten points, we could be looking at a very different result.
I doubt this will go down as a great win on paper for Pitt. Kansas State, despite their 4-0 record coming in, just didn’t look like a great team. But I think it was a very important win for Pitt for a few reasons.
These are the kinds of wins that help young teams grow up. They’ve proven to themselves that they can win a close game down the stretch and, while it wasn’t necessarily pretty, they found a way to win and deserve a lot of credit.
It’s also a great win because it will allow them to play for a championship. Sure, we can mock this kind of early-season tournament and debate just how much something like this means. For an experienced team, I’m not sure it would mean all that much. But for such a young team, I think being able to do that would be very important and tonight’s win should give these guys some motivation to go out and get another win on Wednesday. Winning anything for these guys would be significant.
Finally, it showed the team that they can still gut out victories by playing a sufficient amount of defense. We can talk about Pitt’s struggles on offense but what isn’t being discussed enough is that the team’s defense has been pretty good. The Panthers have only allowed 70 points to a team once so far this year and, four times, they’ve held their opponent to under 60. If they’re able to keep that up, they will find themselves in games even when the offense isn’t there (which I expect will be quite a lot).
I’m not sure Jeff Capel will necessarily be thrilled with the idea of turning the ball over that much and still winning because he won’t want players to think that’s okay. But to play so poorly and still win a game is still a positive. This isn’t a team that’s destined for the postseason and this program is still rebuilding enough that any victory should be celebrated. That’s especially true when you beat a power conference team on a neutral court. Just a very nice win given the circumstances.
Next up, Pitt will play the winner of Northwestern-Bradley (going on right now) on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. for the championship.