GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Pittsburgh players entered their locker room for the final time during pregame warm-ups before taking on North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals Friday when Durand Johnson erupted, yelling to no one in particular as the door closed behind him.
“They soft,” said Johnson, a redshirt sophomore who played 16 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
North Carolina did little to prove Johnson wrong for most of the Panthers’ 80-75 win that set up a semifinal matchup with No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday.
“We got all the pieces, I believe, and we got the guys who are hungry,” Pitt fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson said. “That makes any team in March dangerous.”
Pitt’s veteran leadership provided the template that the Tar Heels were too young and inexperienced to duplicate. Pitt played with the urgency of a postseason team. Carolina played like a team that planned on calling “next” after the loss.
Early on it was clear the Heels just didn’t match the Panthers’ intensity. They missed point-blank shots inside en route to shooting just 1-of-10 from the field to start the game. Lazy passes were made. Defensive assignments were missed.
“I just felt like maybe our preparation wasn’t there, a lot of young guys,” UNC junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “So I don’t think that necessarily should explain how we play, especially how we start the game off. They kind of hit us in the mouth.”
And kept hitting.
None hit harder than Pitt center Talib Zanna, who had a career-high 21 rebounds and 19 points. Five of Zanna’s eight baskets were on putbacks. He tied a tournament record with 10 offense rebounds.
Carolina coach Roy Williams tried a little bit of every post player he had to box out and control the boards against Zanna. None worked. When Desmond Hubert got his chance, Zanna threw him off, grabbed a missed shot and dunked in front of him.
Zanna, who entered the game averaging 12 points, said he wasn’t out to be a part of the offense. His focus was on defense and rebounding.
“I was trying to be a workhorse down in the paint,” Zanna said. “I think that’s what I did today and that’s why we win the game.”
The 6-foot-9 Zanna, who is from Nigeria, speaks softly and is plainspoken. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon throughout the season has implored Zanna and Patterson to be more vocal.
“They’re both kind of quiet and reserved,” Dixon said. “We’ve been trying to get them to be more vocal and talk and I think even a little bit shows something to their teammates.”
They showed plenty with Zanna grabbing rebounds and Patterson making timely shots.
Carolina trailed by 20 with 7:20 left in the game. The Heels, with their partisan crowd in the Greensboro Coliseum, made smaller spurts only to watch the Panthers get a basket to stop their momentum.
“It was just frustrating to watch them get rebound after rebound, that was the thing for me,” said Marcus Paige, who led Carolina with 27 points. “There were possessions where we’d play some good defense and then Zanna would just come over everyone and put it back in. That’s just so deflating.”
The Heels used full-court pressure to get back in the game. They pulled within 77-73 with 1:03 left and still trailed by four when they made two mistakes that spoke to their postseason inexperience.
Paige, who scored 20 points in the second half, lost count of how many fouls he had and purposely committed his fifth thinking he still had one to give.
“I didn’t remember the fourth one that I picked up during the press out of the trap when James [Robinson] turned into me,” Paige said. “That was the fourth one. I didn’t remember that one so when I committed the fifth that was my mistake, I should have been more aware of that.”
Freshman point guard Nate Britt had to handle the load with Paige fouled out for just the second time this season. Carolina had a chance to make it a two-point game with 17 seconds left. Britt had gained a step on his man and drove to the basket when Patterson flashed from the right side.
Britt attempted a double-clutching, twisting layup that hit the bottom of the rim.
“I was trying to draw contact,” Britt said. “Coach told me afterward I should have just gone up strong. I feel like if I would have just gone up strong instead of trying to draw the foul that I could have made the layup and put us in a better position to win the game.”
Pitt is in a much better position with the win over Carolina, its first over a ranked team this season. The Panthers needed to prove themselves after losing all five of their regular-season games against the top four in the ACC. Some were even questioning if the Panthers had done enough to be considered for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
“I already knew what this team was capable of, today just confirmed it,” Patterson said. “That’s what this Pitt program is built on, is toughness.”