No. 22 Hokies hand Pitt basketball ninth straight loss

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No. 22 Hokies hand Pitt basketball ninth straight loss

First-year guard Xavier Johnson (1), pictured here against FSU, led Pitt with 18 points in the loss.

First-year guard Xavier Johnson (1), pictured here against FSU, led Pitt with 18 points in the loss.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson (1), pictured here against FSU, led Pitt with 18 points in the loss.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

First-year guard Xavier Johnson (1), pictured here against FSU, led Pitt with 18 points in the loss.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

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Pitt men’s basketball continued its struggles in ACC play Saturday afternoon, falling 70-64 to No. 22 Virginia Tech at the Petersen Events Center. Despite battling back from a double-digit deficit in the second half, the Panthers were unable to come up with crucial buckets down the stretch to complete the comeback.

Pitt won the opening tip and, after coming up empty on its first offensive possession, showed a full-court, press man defense that forced the Hokies into a turnover and an offensive foul on their first two possessions. Junior forward Kene Chukwuka drew two free throws out of the fast break and made one to open the game’s scoring.

Graduate guard Sidy N’Dir, making his second straight start, had an immediate impact. He made his first attempt from the floor, finding net on a fading layup, and converted an and-one free throw to give the Panthers a 4-2 lead.

It was short-lived, however, as junior guard Kerry Blackshear hit a pull-up 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Hokies on top for the first time at 5-4. The 6-foot-10 Blackshear scored from all over the floor for Virginia Tech, shooting 3-3 from distance, 5-6 from 2-point range and making 10 of 11 free throws on the evening. Chukwuka, who made his first start since Jan. 5, was matched up opposite Blackshear for most of the night and said postgame that he didn’t expect Blackshear to score as efficiently as he did.

“The scouting report on him was that he couldn’t shoot, but we obviously learned that he can shoot,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to give him open looks… but he found ways to be effective. He [shot] 10 of 11 on free throws. He played a good game.”

Blackshear combined with graduate guard Ahmed Hill to torch the Panthers in the first half. After Pitt took a two-point lead at the 17:48 mark, the duo scored the Hokies’ next 24 points, with none of their teammates scoring until sophomore guard Bede Wassiba connected on a jumper with two seconds left in the first half.

During this explosive scoring run from Hill and Blackshear, the Panthers were able to hold their own. After being down by 11 at the 12:16 mark, Pitt went on an 18-5 run to take a two-point lead with 2:34 left to play in the half. First-year guard Trey McGowens was instrumental, hitting two threes to ignite the Panthers and their fans.

Pitt showed poor execution at the end of the half. With 32 seconds left and Pitt trailing by three, N’Dir controlled the ball at the top of the key and ran it down to about eight seconds before making his move to the hoop for what was a supposed to be a final shot. N’Dir missed the layup and the rebound fell into the hands of Wassiba, who took the ball coast-to-coast for a layup as time expired.

The second half was a back-and-forth affair for the first 10 minutes, with Virginia Tech maintaining the five-point lead they held at halftime. Then, with 7:38 left to play, first-year guard Xavier Johnson made a 3-pointer to cut the lead to two.

Less than 20 seconds later, Blackshear would hit the first of three straight Hokie 3-pointers to give Virginia Tech an 11-point lead — their largest of the game — and force a timeout from Pitt head coach Jeff Capel.

The Panthers refused to go away, cutting the Hokie lead to five within the final minute. But their comeback fell short, as turnovers, anemic offense and missed free throws held Pitt back in the game’s final minutes.

Both teams combined to shoot 22 free throws in the second half, 15 of them coming in the final five minutes of the game. The Panthers couldn’t find an offensive rhythm and Virginia Tech’s effective free throw shooting — 70 percent in the second half — was the difference maker.

Blackshear was the story of the game. In the midst of a career year, the big man showed a wide range of skills, from the pull-up 3-pointer to a masterful post game. Capel’s adjustments did little to slow down Blackshear, who finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

“We wanted to try and put some pressure on him to guard on the other end,” Capel said. “We were in foul trouble, so it was out of necessity, and I thought it gave us a little bit of a better look.”

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams indicated that without senior guard Justin Robinson, who has missed the past five games for the Hokies, Blackshear’s role as not only an effective scorer and rebounder, but leader as well, has been vital.

“You have to play through him,” Williams said. “He’s our best defender. He’s our best scorer. He’s our best passer. He’s our best playmaker. And he has the highest basketball IQ on our team.”

Three Panthers scored in double figures — Johnson, McGowens and N’Dir, who finished with 18, 10 and 12 points, respectively. Johnson also added five assists, paired with a game-high five turnovers.

The losses continue to mount for the young Panthers, who have now dropped nine in a row and 14 for the entire season. When asked how Pitt is handling the adversity, sophomore guard Khameron Davis emphasized that the team remains unfazed.  

“We are not separating at all,” he said. “We’re together. We’re actually growing stronger together. It just sucks that we’re losing. We’re a team. I love every single one of my teammates. We just need to keep on growing and learn how to win.”

No. 22 Virginia Tech improved to 20-5, their fourth 20-win season in a row, but there is no time for celebration as they have a quick turnaround before they welcome in-state rival No. 4 Virginia Monday night.

The Panthers fall to 12-14 on the season, 2-11 in ACC play and 0-6 against ranked opponents since they upset then No. 11 Florida State Jan. 14. Pitt next travels to take on Georgia Tech Wednesday night. Tip-off is slated for 9 p.m.

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