From a near-comeback to the return of meaningful games, here are three things that stood out in Pitt’s loss to Clemson on Saturday.
A comeback that fell short
Comebacks are nothing new for this Pitt team.
In fact, four of the Panthers’ first 11 wins this season came after trailing at halftime. Pitt was trailed Alabama State by 12 and was down 34-31 at halftime before coming back to win the second half 42-20. The same thing happened five days later against William & Mary: Pitt was down four at the break and outscored the tribe by 20 in the final 20.
North Carolina had a six-point lead on Pitt at halftime; the Panthers overcame that with an eight-point comeback in the second half. And Virginia, Pitt’s most recent opponent prior to Saturday, was up 13 on the Panthers in the first half, led by 10 at halftime and held a 12-point win with 16 minutes to play in the game.
As we know, the Panthers came back to win that one, too.
So when Clemson was up 10 in the first half on Saturday, there wasn’t any panic. And that lack of concern was well-founded, as Pitt overcame that deficit, took a two-point lead into halftime and held an eight-point advantage with 5:35 left in the game.
The difference this time, of course, was that Pitt couldn’t finish the deal. The biggest reason for that was the unfortunate tandem of the Panthers going cold on offense while Clemson made shots: Pitt was 3-of-8 from the floor in the final 5:35, while the Tigers shot 6-of-9.
Still, while the comeback fell short, Pitt still reinforced the notion that it is capable of coming back in a game. Since Jeff Capel’s group worked itself out of its early-season issues and grew as a team, the Panthers have never truly been out of a game. It’s not healthy to rely on comebacks every game, and some of those comebacks will fall short (as was the case on Saturday), but this team has shown that it can come back on just about any occasion.
Saturday was a letdown for Pitt, to be sure. The Panthers had built a five-game winning streak and were winners of 10 out of their last 11 – not to mention the 4-0 start in ACC games, Pitt’s best opening to conference play since joining the league in 2013.
In Clemson, they were facing another team that was 4-0 in the ACC, making Saturday afternoon’s tilt an early-season battle for first place in the league.
The Panthers couldn’t pull it off, and there’s plenty to talk about in that regard. But there’s no denying that the game had a characteristic we haven’t seen in a Pitt game in a long time:
It was meaningful.
Pitt was playing a significant game that drew quite a bit of attention from the ACC and the college basketball world. It was clear from Clemson coach Brad Brownell that this wasn’t just any old win over Pitt; beating the Panthers was viewed as an accomplishment by Brownell and the Tigers, because Pitt has earned that respect so far this season.
Just as importantly – and maybe more so – it drew attention from the Pitt fanbase, who showed up in numbers with an announced attendance of 10,403.
For a portion of those fans, Saturday’s game was a callback to what used to be. For another portion, it was the first experience in such an environment, because it has been a long time since the Petersen Events Center played host to something like that (at least for men’s basketball).
I would venture that most of the fans in the building yesterday could get used to it, and I think they’ll get a few more shots of that experience over the next two months.
After the Virginia game, one of my takeaways was the lack of depth, as Jamarius Burton, Nelly Cummings and Blake Hinson played the full final 20 in that win and Federiko Federiko played almost all 20. That was inspirational and necessary for the win, but it’s not exactly sustainable.
On Saturday, the Panthers needed some depth due to foul trouble, and they got contributions from the bench that were fairly encouraging.
Guillermo Diaz Graham logged 11:51 minutes in the loss, the most he has played since the season opener against UT-Martin, and produced four points, five rebounds (four on the offensive end), two steals, one assist and no turnovers. He also drew two fouls.
Nate Santos played 11:40, his highest total since the second game of the season, and he scored two points (on a buzzer-beater right before halftime), grabbed five rebounds, drew one foul and didn’t turn the ball over.
Jorge Diaz Graham also played 38 seconds but scored two points on free throws and grabbed a rebound in that short span of time.
Plus/minus isn’t a perfect stat in basketball, but it’s pretty eye-opening with those three:
Pitt was +10 with Guillermo Diaz Graham on the court, +15 with Santos on the court and +2 with Jorge Diaz Graham on the court.
“I thought some of the guys that came in off the bench were magnificent and really gave us a boost and played some really good minutes,” Jeff Capel said after the game.
I don’t know if “magnificent” is a bit too far, but they made solid contributions, and that will be needed as the team dives into the next 15 regular-season games. Pitt clearly has its leaders and top contributors – Cummings, Burton and Hinson chief among them – but the Panthers will have to get more from the bench. John Hugley’s eventual return will help in the post, but Santos and the Diaz Graham twins are going to have to provide something as the season wears on.
In that respect, Saturday was an encouraging sign.
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