PITTSBURGH- Panther basketball might just be back. Pitt produced a second-half effort that was essentially flawless, turning a 10-point halftime deficit into a 68-65 win over #11 Virginia. The victory pushes the Panthers to 11-4, and 4-0 in the ACC, tied for the best in program history alongside their inaugural ACC season. With this win, pending results against Clemson, the Pittsburgh Panthers may have played their way into the top 25.
The Panthers were led in scoring by both Blake Hinson and Nike Sibande, each scoring 16 points while Jamarius Burton added 15. Kihei Clark led the Cavaliers with 17 assists, although the ACC assists-to-turnover ratio leader did produce an uncharacteristic five turnovers.
Nelly Cummings had one of his best games facilitating for the Panthers, adding eight assists including a beautiful one-handed skip pass to Blake Hinson for a late corner three.
FIRST HALF RECAP:
The Panthers got off to a rough start in the contest, missing their first six shots before a Blake Hinson three opened the scoring for Pitt. It was the only shot they’d make before the first media timeout, as Virginia controlled the tempo of play and slowed the game down.
Although the Cavaliers started with a 6-0 run, the Panthers would answer right back, tying it with a 6-0 run of their own.
As Virginia settled into their offense the Panthers were forced to deal with an onslaught of screens and off-ball movement, a textbook display of a Tony Bennett offense that is ranked 361 out 363 in time of possession.
Heading into the under-eight media timeout the Cavaliers were still in the driver’s seat, leading 17-12. Virginia G Armaan Franklin dropped nine points early on 4-6 shooting, including a three-pointer.
Pitt’s turnover issues that were prevalent early on in the season reared their head again, ending the half with eight. Virginia capitalized on nearly all Panther mistakes, leading in the points off of turnovers margin 12-8.
Virginia assisted on a remarkable 77% (10/13) of their first-half FG, a testament to both questionable switches and help on drives from the Panthers, as well as smart decision-making from G Kihei Clark and Franklin, who each finished the half with three dimes.
The Panthers showed life late in the first half, waking up the Oakland Zoo that had recently returned from winter break. Late buckets from Nike Sibande, and Jamarius Burton, as well as free throws by Guillermo Diaz Graham, cut a 13-point deficit down to as little as seven, but the Cavs would answer near the break with a momentum-crushing corner three from G Isaac McKneely to restore the lead to 10 at the half.
With the score 33-23, the Panthers dropped their lowest-scoring first half to date, and second-lowest-scoring half of the season (20 points in the second half against WVU).
SECOND HALF RECAP:
With the first two points of the half coming off a blatant missed call, the script for a rough second half seemed written in the stars.
The Panthers quickly proved they had some fight left in them, creating offense off of high ball screens before cutting to the hoop. Nike Sibande also hit two threes, sending Pitt to the first media timeout with a little momentum and tangible energy from the crowd.
From there, Pitt turned on the jets. The next five and half minutes produced a 14-2 run in which the Panthers crawled back from a 12-point deficit to tie the game at 44-44 on a Nelly Cummings basket down low that sent the Pete into hysterics.
The Panthers held a top-20 KenPom-rated offense scoreless for nearly six full minutes, taking their first lead of the game on a Blake Hinson layup 46-44, the final basket of a remarkable 14-0 run.
Nike Sibande would try his best to rip the rim from the basket, hammering home a dunk that should be a candidate for Pitt dunk of the year.
The very next trip down the floor Blake Hinson knocked down a corner three, and at that moment not a single attendee of this game had two feet firmly on the ground. With electricity coursing throughout the stadium, the Panthers entered the last eight minutes up 51-50.
Virginia, a team that appears nearly emotionless in the face of opposing momentum, responded quickly. Kihei Clark hit a three, followed by a three-point play from Reece Beekman, and suddenly the eleventh-ranked Cavaliers found themselves back in front.
There’s something different about this Pitt team from years past, and it made itself evident in the last two minutes of this game. Maybe it came from the energy in the crowd, maybe the fact that the players all seem like they mesh as a family. This team, especially as the season progresses, is unflinching in the face of considerable adversity.
Pitt took the lead 62-60 with a minute remaining, and from that point on never let it slip. After clutch free throw shooting, a remarkable last-minute defensive effort, and a considerable amount of Jeff Capel yelling at officials, the Panthers came out on top 68-65.
The Panthers look to extend their unbeaten streak in conference play when Clemson comes to town this Saturday (1/7) at 4 PM.