No. 15 NC State narrowly escapes with 86-80 win over Pitt


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Sophomore center Terrell Brown (21) , pictured here against Louisville, scored 10 points and led Pitt with eight rebounds against NC State.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

It’s the little things that matter.

The adage holds true for life in general, but it can especially be applied to the game of basketball. And in Saturday’s 86-80 loss at No. 15 NC State, the Panthers played exceptionally for most of the game, but made a few little mistakes — like letting the Wolfpack hit four straight 3-pointers in crunch time — that cost them what would have been a monumental second straight ACC win.

Pitt (11-5 overall, 1-2 ACC) shot a higher percentage from the field (45.5 – 42.3), the 3-point line (46.2 – 35) and the free throw line (85.7 – 76) than its opponent. However, NC State (14-2 overall, 2-1 ACC) created some separation with a late-game barrage of efficient shooting that made the difference in the end.

It’s the second time this season that Pitt had a coveted road victory over a ranked team within its grasp, only to falter ever so slightly down the stretch and settle for a moral victory. The first was a one-point loss to No. 14 Iowa in November. But the up-and-coming Panthers showed recently that they can turn such contests into actual wins, beating Louisville in overtime Wednesday night to win their first ACC game in 690 days.

When first-year forward Au’Diese Toney hit a corner three to put Pitt up 61-57 with 6:31 left in the game, the Panthers appeared to be in control. Their shape-shifting 2-3 zone had smothered NC State to that point, holding them to just 3-16 shooting from beyond the 3-point line.

It also helped that NC State was without two of its starters, graduate forward Wyatt Walker and junior guard Markell Johnson — the team’s second-leading scorer — for much of the contest. Walker was ejected after lashing out at Pitt first-year guard Xavier Johnson just two minutes into the game, while Markell Johnson exited with a back injury after a hard fall midway through the first half.

Even still, the Panthers found themselves down by as much as nine points at several times throughout the first half. They continuously clawed back and never let the deficit reach double digits.

The opening half saw first-year guard Trey McGowens — coming off a career-high 33 points against Louisville — flash his ability as a distributor, dishing out four assists in the first half alone. He would finish the game with seven, establishing a new career high.

With Johnson relegated to the bench for much of the first half due to foul trouble, it was up to McGowens to serve as the team’s primary ball-handler. Pitt’s offense consisted almost solely of McGowens and sophomore center Terrell Brown running a high pick-and-roll, with Brown rushing to the rim and McGowens looking to attack or kick the ball out. The duo displayed promising chemistry, connecting for four baskets in the game.

In Johnson’s brief absence, sophomore guard Khameron Davis also stepped up in a big way, playing a season-high 25 minutes and draining all three of his 3-point shot attempts. The oft-forgotten Davis also tied for second on the team with four rebounds and two steals, showing that he may deserve a greater role in head coach Jeff Capel’s rotation moving forward.

The Panthers took their first lead with 1:53 remaining before halftime, but Wolfpack graduate guard Eric Lockett made a jumper to take the lead right back and go into the locker room up 41-40. Lockett emerged as a key player in the wake of his teammates’ injuries, shooting a slick 3-4 from beyond the arc and scoring 17 points — 12 more than his season average.

Pitt’s first half was an odd one — the Panthers shot just 10-27 from the field but managed to get to the free throw line 21 times, compared to just seven for the Wolfpack, where they knocked down 18 of their attempts. Much of this was due to Pitt senior forward Jared Wilson-Frame, whose final statline resembled an oxymoron — 9-9 from the free throw line but an ugly 1-10 from the field.

The second half had its own peculiarities as well. The Panthers largely kept NC State leading scorer Torin Dorn at bay, but Lockett and sophomore forward DJ Funderburk — the Wolfpack’s ninth and fifth leading scorers, respectively, on the season — became a two-man wrecking crew out of nowhere. The duo produced NC State’s first 22 points — not until 4:22 remained in the game, when Dorn hit a 3-pointer, did any other NC State player score.

For the Panthers, the offense ran through Xavier Johnson with the explosive guard back in action. He routinely looked like the best player on the court, showing an uncanny knack to get to the free throw line by zipping past the defense, shot-faking, then rising up into his defender’s poorly positioned body to draw the foul. Despite playing just 24 minutes, Johnson finished with a game-high 25 points.

The two teams went back and forth for the first 15 minutes of the second half with no clear victor emerging. The game featured four tied scores and eight lead changes, with none more important than Lockett’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 5:49 left to put NC State up 63-61. Pitt led 61-57 just 40 seconds earlier, but two consecutive Lockett threes saw their four-point lead turn into a two-point deficit in the blink of an eye.

Despite Pitt’s relentless attempts to come back, NC State would not relinquish that lead for the rest of the game. Johnson answered with a layup to tie the score at 63, but Lockett responded once again with two free throws on the ensuing possession. Dorn increased the lead to five with a corner three of his own, then sophomore guard Braxton Beverly drained the team’s fourth consecutive 3-pointer after a Toney layup to give the Wolfpack a decisive 71-65 lead with 3:33 remaining.

To Pitt’s credit, they did not go quietly into the night. Johnson played the final minutes as if his very life depended on it, scoring an incredible 12 points in the final 2:35. But it was all for naught — for every Johnson free throw and ferocious take to the hoop, NC State countered with a make of its own, shooting 4-4 from the field and 7-8 from the free throw line in the game’s last three minutes. Both teams exploded for some gaudy offensive numbers in the game’s final frame, but the Wolfpack’s lead never wavered and they held on to win 86-80.

With the loss, Pitt has now dropped 16 consecutive road games against ranked opponents. The Panthers will look to beat a ranked team at home when they take on No. 13 Florida State in their next game, Monday at 7 p.m.