GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Pittsburgh’s defense, like Virginia’s, is tough enough to keep it in any game. It’s the Panthers' offense that will dictate how long their NCAA tournament lasts.
The Panthers fell to Virginia 51-48 in the ACC tournament semifinals and the difference between advancing to their first ACC title game came down to the Cavaliers having more offensive firepower. The Cavs had more players who could score in more ways, which is why they never trailed in the second half.
“It just shows what we have to do to get better come NCAA tournament time,” said Pitt guard James Robinson, who had seven points. “I think a couple of possessions down the stretch we let get away from us. Not saying we could have scored on them but we could have got better looks. And just knowing situations like that will help us going forward.”
One possession with around 1:45 left in the game came when guard Josh Newkirk got the ball in transition. He had senior Lamar Patterson, the team’s leading scorer, open to his right to take a potentially game-tying 3-pointer. Instead the freshman pulled up and launched a shot that missed off the front of the rim.
The game wasn’t won or lost on Newkirk’s missed shot. But the Panthers don’t have a big margin of error when it comes to scoring.
Robinson can create off the dribble. Center Talib Zanna scores mainly off layups or whatever he can clean off the glass. The offense centers around Patterson running off screens and getting his shots. When he struggles like he did against the Cavs -- he scored 15 points on 6 of 15 shooting -- the Panthers will also struggle.
“We knew we had to be more solid, our mistakes had to be at a minimum against Virginia because they weren’t going to make any,” Patterson said. “…We knew what we were getting into this game. There were going to be less possessions, slow scoring. That’s exactly what it was.”
Virginia used to be that team. Last season it was Joe Harris carrying the offensive load playing in a similar way to Patterson. But the Cavs have diversified their offense this season, and Harris is taking fewer shots.
“This team has versatility, but we have things we hang our hat on,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “The soundness and the toughness and getting good shots. We do it collectively. The right guys want to play that way and it’s fun to win.”
When Pitt shoots 36 percent as it did against Virginia and go nearly six minutes without a field goal in the second half, it’s surprising it managed to make it a one-possession game. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said their shot selection had to improve in the NCAA tournament.
“We didn't shoot well, I think our offense wasn't exactly what we needed to do, but we battled,” Dixon said. “We did some good things. When it got down to the end, we got better defensively and got stops.”
Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon remarked it was a game where a four-point lead felt like a huge advantage. So when the Cavs stretched their lead to eight points midway through the second half, it felt insurmountable.
That’s where the Pitt defense kept it in the game. The Panthers also held the Cavs without a field goal for nearly six minutes.
“There’s a point where we felt like we were beating them down and getting in their heads a little bit,” Brogdon said. “That’s not a team that you really can break their back. They keep coming, they keep coming because their defense is so good.”
Pitt’s defense almost proved good enough to force overtime. Robinson had a clean strip on a Brodgon drive and took in in for a layup with 10 seconds left. Robinson appeared to be fouled by Virginia’s Akil Mitchell and even admitted he was “somewhat” trying to bait the body contact when he jumped, but Robinson didn’t get the benefit of the call.
“It’s not a foul if they don’t call it,” Robinson said.
Pitt had a final chance to tie the game with three seconds left, but Robinson’s shot was blocked by Justin Anderson to send the Cavs to the title game.
“They capitalized on the few mistakes we had, which definitely benefitted them, but at the end of the game,” Robinson said, “we had a chance to win, it just didn't go our way.”