The Pitt men’s basketball team has outlasted national powers like Duke and Missouri, as well… The Pitt men’s basketball team has outlasted national powers like Duke and Missouri, as well as rival West Virginia, this March thanks to a wild first round in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, the Panthers are participating in the College Basketball Invitational rather than the Big Dance, and they will take on the Princeton Tigers (20-11, 10-4 Ivy League) in a quarterfinal matchup tonight at the Petersen Events Center.
Given all its struggles this season, Pitt might not have much in common with many of the teams still alive in the postseason, but it does share one important similarity: the goal of extending its season as deep into March as possible. Princeton, though, riding a five-game win streak and victorious in nine of its last 10 games, is far from an Ivy League doormat.
The Tigers were an NCAA Tournament team a year ago and nearly upset eventual Final Four participant Kentucky in the round of 64. First-year head coach Mitch Henderson’s club returned all but two contributors from last season’s Ivy League championship team in 2011-2012 but finished third in the conference this year behind Harvard and Penn, two teams the Tigers split head-to-head matchups with in the regular season.
Senior guard Douglas Davis, the Tigers’ second-leading scorer behind junior big man Ian Hummer, led the way with 31 points in the team’s 95-86 victory over Evansville in the first round of the tournament last Tuesday.
“We didn’t want to end just yet. We wanted to get a win in the postseason and we did that,” Davis said after his scoring outburst Tuesday night. “Now we want to keep this run going.”
The Panthers hope to do the same as they showed in their 81-63 win on Wednesday against Wofford. J.J. Moore and Travon Woodall were among the five players to score double figures against the Terriers, pacing the Panthers with 16 points apiece.
“The fans were behind me. The true fans were there, they had our back. I showed them that this is what Pitt is about,” Moore said after the Wofford win in reference to the sparse attendance. The 1,449 fans in attendance were the fewest for a Pitt home game since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002.
But sophomore forward Lamar Patterson made it clear Wednesday that the ultimate goal for the Panthers’ CBI experience is simple: get better.
“We are looking to build momentum going into the off-season and working hard,” Patterson said. “The extra games are great. We get extra practice time with the team and more coaching from Coach Dixon and the rest of the staff. It’s great right now.”
Head coach Jamie Dixon was also pleased with the Panthers’ performance against Wofford, especially given the strange and disappointing situation the team finds itself in. Playing in front of crowds of less than 2,000 people in games that aren’t even televised is uncharted territory for a Pitt program that hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since the 2000-2001 campaign.
“We anticipated getting into the NIT and then when we weren’t, we found ourselves in the situation we’re in,” Dixon said Wednesday night. “It’s been tough on our guys, but they wanted to play and I was eager to see how they would come out. We came out and defended well and we shot and passed the ball well and we were unselfish, and that says a lot about our guys.”
The Panthers recorded 20 assists on 33 field goals and turned the ball over just six times, tying a season low in that department.
Princeton has only faced a team from the Big East one time this season, securing a 59-57 victory over Rutgers in December. Tonight’s showdown between the Panthers and the Tigers will be just the fourth all-time meeting between the two teams and first since 1962. Pitt holds a 2-1 advantage in the all-time series.
A win for the Panthers will set up a semifinal matchup Wednesday night with either Penn, which fell to Pitt earlier this season, or Butler, the team that eliminated the Panthers in the NCAA Tournament last year in a controversial finish.