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Pitt defeats Miami in ACC opener, 70-55

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt men’s basketball team opened ACC play on Wednesday night with a 70-55 win over a depleted Miami team.

The game turned into a laugher but for a while, it was quite close. The Panthers (5-1) held only a two-point lead at the half and Miami (3-2) seemed poised to hang around, despite being incredibly shorthanded. How short was the Hurricanes’ bench? Injuries meant Miami played only seven guys — and two of those left the game with injuries themselves at one point.

I didn’t care for Pitt’s offensive strategy to start, if there was one. The Panthers were abundantly sloppy in taking care of the ball (ten turnovers in the first half) for one thing. For another, it seemed as there was no consideration of Miami playing with only seven guys due to all of the injuries. Even the announcers were astute enough to know that Pitt should be trying to get those guys in foul trouble.

Yet, there the Panthers were, settling for a few too many jump shots early and being overly passive. And in fact, it was Pitt that racked up the fouls with three starters picking up two fouls. Miami shot 20 free throws in the first half.

To be fair, the Panthers did eventually try to get the ball in the paint more. And the success was mixed. In fact, after a while, it looked like they were told to get the ball inside at all costs, almost painfully at times, forcing bad passes. Above all, it even looked like they were uncomfortable doing that and, well, it’s hard to blame them. Pitt has not had much of an inside presence recently and it’s something they’re going to have to work into the offense a bit more. This is a team that, frankly, has not been used to dumping the ball inside all that much with any great level of consistency.

They had a bit of success getting the ball in the paint and eventually, started to look quite comfortable doing so. True freshman John Hugley had his best game of his early career with nine points (all in the first half), at times looking like a beast inside and other times, looking very much like a freshman. But the potential to be very good is certainly present.

Pitt should, of course, not only be employing this strategy against shorthanded teams. They should be making a concerted effort to get the ball inside against all of their opponents. And I have a feeling that will happen as Hugley begins to develop.

Other than that a few other things to note.

As Mike wrote just before the game, transfer Nike Sibande received clearance to play this year (all transfers in doubt were given immediate eligibility). Sibande even played in this game so it’s clear that he’s going to be ready to go immediately. His impact was limited tonight (three points and two rebounds) but he’ll almost certainly contribute more as the year goes on.

Justin Champagnie’s two-game 20-20 streak came to an abrupt halt but he still had a solid game, producing nearly a double double (ten points, nine rebounds). Ithiel Horton was the unlikely star for Pitt, scoring 18 while shooting 4-6 from three-point range. Au’Diese Toney chipped in with 15.

The takeaway I’ve got here is that it’s a big win no matter the circumstances. Yes, Miami was badly shorthanded. And yes, the Panthers were expected to win. But, as I said in the preview, this is still a team trying to find its way. Forget seniors — it’s a team with few upperclassmen. And anytime you’re relying on this many freshmen and sophomores that aren’t blue chip guys, it’s going to be a work in progress. Things didn’t start well and better teams would have surely taken it to Miami a bit more. But a 15-point win on the road in conference? You just won’t find me complaining much about that.

Pitt’s now won five in a row but things are about to get much tougher. That’s another reason I think this win was important. The Panthers will face No. 23 Louisville on Tuesday and then No. 21 Duke a week later. After that is Notre Dame and then a game against No. 15 Florida State. These guys are about to enter a very difficult stretch and every ACC win is going to be important for this team’s confidence going forward.

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