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Pitt blows lead in tough 69-65 defeat to Wake Forest

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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt got off to a great start in its game against Wake Forest, quickly building a double digit lead. They extended that lead to 16 points and could do no wrong early.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, it was short-lived. And after quickly squandering that lead, they were on the wrong side of a back and forth game, losing 69-65. Pitt was right there in the end and had a chance to either win it or send it in overtime. But Xavier Johnson took an absolute head-scratcher of a wild shot and on the next possession, Trey McGowens had his full-court layup attempt swatted by Wake’s center.

I’ve got nothing on Johnson’s shot. So, no, actually I’ve got quite a lot. You all know by now that I don’t really boil entire games, especially basketball games, down to one play. And this game wasn’t lost on Johnson’s shot. But, well, let’s talk about it.

I’ve watched enough basketball to see that play in real time and know the shot was bad to begin with. But I had to rewatch it on the DVR again just to determine how bad it was. That, combined with my terrible iPhone camera revealed this particularly stunning image.

Here, we’ve got a blurry Johnson with the ball surrounded by three defenders. This is actually a great job by him to attract so much attention and a pretty horrible job by Wake Forest if this were any other player. Johnson has two pretty good options at his disposal. He’s got a wide open Ryan Murphy (leading scorer today) right behind him and a wide open Justin Champagnie in front of him to his left at, albeit, possibly a difficult angle with the Wake defender lurking in the paint. If we’re being hypercrtical, Champagnie could probably be a bit better positioned to his right to create a better passing lane but he’s still wide open.

Either of these two options would be more attractive to Johnson but he either fails to see both players or is so intent on taking the final shot that he does not care. I don’t believe it was the former because I’ve seen Johnson show excellent court vision before. And having drawn so many defenders, he had to know someone was open, anyway. That’s not even Basketball 101, it’s 1st Grade level mathematics.

Unfortunately for him, Wake quickly realizes their mistake and soon after, recovers, covering both Murphy and Champagnie. They do that not because they are excellent players. Rather, they do it because Johnson has now picked up his dribble and has essentially handcuffed himself to the elbow making a one-on-one situation against him much more reasonable. At this point, with players now covered, Johnson’s best option with seven seconds left (and the shot clock off) is to use Pitt’s final timeout and let them regroup. Instead, he rushes a ridiculous off-balance shot, which even the most novice of basketball watchers could identify as a poor one.

That wasn’t exactly the ballgame because Pitt had another shot with McGowens’ attempt after a missed free throw. But you get the idea. Just terrible all-around basketball by Johnson, who, shooting 3-10 from the field with three turnovers, wasn’t exactly having a good enough game to warrant taking that kind of a shot.

Whether it’s true or not, Johnson views himself as the leader of the team. And I certainly don’t have an issue with that or with him taking the final shot in a close game. The problem is, this wasn’t a smart basketball play in forcing such a terrible shot. He had far better options there, including, even calling the timeout after he failed to hit one of his wide open teammates.

This, more than anything, is why Johnson is not even close to being NBA-ready. He not only lacks the actual ability at this point but the bigger problem is that he is not even there mentally to make such a jump.

The idea has been floated that Johnson has been eyeing the NBA ever since his excellent freshman year last season. I have no idea if that’s true or not and it’s not even that relevant here, to be honest. The point is that, as long as he continues to make foolish decisions like this one, any potential NBA talk is just nonsense at this point. I believe his game can get there and would not be surprised in the slightest to see him there. He’s still a very talented player. But a lot of talented players don’t even sniff the NBA and he has a lot of improving to do. Just an overly selfish play by a guy that is supposed to be the best player on the team.

A nice sub-story here, too, would be the reaction by Murphy. I don’t have it here but if you watch the replay of that final sequence, Murphy was livid. Not, kind of disappointed, aw shucks livid. Rather, flailing his arms and yelling at the bench livid. I’d love to get Murphy’s honest thoughts on that possession if they could be had because he was not happy.

Murphy was similarly displeased with McGowens’ decision if you rewatch the tape there, too. On that play he was again wide open, though, I’ve got far less of a problem with McGowens’ drive as he was able to get to the rim fairly quickly and time was running out.

So, back to the rest of the game.

It’s worth acknowledging, of course, that the Panthers didn’t even put together a complete half. Wake Forest chipped away at that lead in the first half and managed to cut it to three at the break. After a three-pointer by Murphy to build a 22-6 lead, Pitt would score only eight more points in the nearly 11 minutes left of the first half.

The narrative by some will be that Pitt won the first half and lost the second. Really, it was more like Pitt winning the first ten minutes.

The game would be disappointing no matter the opponent. But as a favorite and playing at home against what is perceived as one of the weaker conference teams, it’s a gut punch. Got to be honest here. As I said before the game, these are the types of games Pitt hoped to win last year. This year, they’re expected to win them. Losing the game is tough but losing the game with a massive lead at home? That’s just not going to cut it.

If you look at the overall game, you can make the argument that Pitt had no business even keeping things that close. They were outrebounded, allowed Wake Forest seven more free throws, and shot under 40% from the field while Wake shot about 47%. Still, Pitt was able to combine a really poor start by Wake with their own hot shooting early for a big lead. But the shots quickly stopped falling and Wake, conversely, started making more buckets.

Murphy led the way for Pitt with 18 points. He was the catalyst in that early start with 12 of Pitt’s first 22 points. Despite that, he would take only six more shots in the final 31 minutes of the game.

Now, 12 shots for Murphy (who also started in place of Audiese Toney, who is out with an injury) is a fair amount. But he could have stood to get some more looks simply because he was clearly Pitt’s best player today. Wake Forest obviously keyed on him a bit more after that start but it would have been nice if Pitt could have managed to get him open enough to take more shots. And, well, he was wide open on the final possessions, so I mean ...

I rarely get frustrated with things the basketball team does these days. I really don’t. I have people ask me all the time how it’s possible to watch some of these games and not get angry. A lot of it is just getting older and realizing this just isn’t that important. But this is also a team that is very clearly rebuilding and expecting too much of them at this point is only going to result in unnecessary heartburn. It’s just not worth it to be burned out over a team that, ultimately, is not contending for anything this year.

Still, there are the Arthur fist-clenching moments, of course. I mean, if you’re not going to defeat the Wake Forests of the conference when you’re spotted a 16-point lead at home, how many ACC teams can you even reasonably expect to beat?

Rebuilding or not, you’ve got to have those.

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