Men’s Basketball: West Virginia wins last scheduled Backyard Brawl

By Lauren Kirschman

The last scheduled installment of the Backyard Brawl ended with an audible cheer of “Let’s go… The last scheduled installment of the Backyard Brawl ended with an audible cheer of “Let’s go Mountaineers” in Pitt’s home arena.

A contest that began with the Pitt’s student section — the Oakland Zoo — jumping and cheering with such force that it shook the lower bowl of the Petersen Events Center finished with Panther fans filing to the exits early and the West Virginia men’s basketball team leaving the floor in triumph to the sound of cheers echoing in the near empty arena.

With the 66-48 win, the Mountaineers — who are joining the Big 12 Conference in July — not only earned the right to say they beat Pitt last, but they also all but destroyed Pitt’s slim hope of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid.

When Pitt point guard Travon Woodall returned from an abdominal and groin injury on Jan. 21 that kept him out of the lineup since November, the Panthers’ 0-7 start in the Big East transformed into a 4-1 stretch and boosted fans’ hopes that the Panthers’ 10-year NCAA Tournament streak wouldn’t come to an end.

But after the initial success with Woodall on the floor, the Panthers have lost three-straight games and eliminated the possibility of finishing .500 in the Big East. Now, it seems that  Pitt’s only chance to reach the Big Dance will be running the table at the Big East Tournament in March.

“This seems to be a team where we’re still finding ourselves,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “We’re a bit younger. We’ve had to reinvent ourselves as Travon’s come back. It was our emphasis these past few comes to reverse the ball and be more patient and we just didn’t do it.”

West Virginia turned its one-point halftime advantage into a seven-point lead,. 38-31, seven minutes into the second half.

Pitt managed cut the lead to 40-35, but the Mountaineers went on a 12-1 scoring run to stretch their advantage to 52-36 with 6:52 left in the game. The lead proved insurmountable for the Panthers, who continued to struggle with turnovers after the break and grew stagnant on offense. Even Woodall, who scored a 24 points in Pitt’s win over West Virginia earlier this season, couldn’t jumpstart Pitt’s offense after the break.

“We got a bunch of good looks, we just didn’t knock them down,” Woodall said. “They were the same looks that we were getting last time we played them. We got a bunch of open looks that we normally knock down and tonight we didn’t.”

Woodall dished out eight assists, but also turned the ball over four times. Sharp-shooter Ashton Gibbs went 2-11 from the field, including 0-5 from the 3-point line, and scored just eight points.

Pitt shot 29 percent in the second half while the Mountaineers improved to 46 percent from 42 percent in the first half and kept taking advantage of the Panthers’ mistakes. West Virginia finished the night with 23 points off of 17 Pitt turnovers.

“They scored on a bunch on our turnovers,” Woodall said. “They converted most of our turnovers into baskets. That was definitely the big key, us not controlling the ball and I put that on myself.”

The turnovers didn’t just negatively impact the Panthers’ offense, but also led to transition layups and easy shots for the Mountaineers. Dixon said Pitt’s season-long struggle with turnovers stems from the team’s impatience offensively.

“Driving to the same side, driving into help defense, not reversing the ball — that’s what we refer to as impatience,” Dixon said. “They were far more patient than we were. They were holding the ball, they were spreading it out.”

Pitt shot the ball well in the first half, going 10-22 from the floor for 45.5 percent, but its efforts were still counteracted by nine turnovers. West Virginia took advantage, scoring 10 points off Pitt’s miscues to go into the break with a 26-25 lead despite shooting 14 percent from beyond the arc.

“We were on defense more than we were on offense, there’s no question about it,” Dixon said. “Getting off to a slow start is something that has hurt us.”

Pitt handled the pressure better at West Virginia, Dixon added, and produced more layups off of back cuts and penetration. The Panthers won the first matchup 72-66 while turning the ball over just 10 times.

West Virginia held a slim lead for most of the first half on Thursday, its largest lead coming at 9-5 off a Deniz Kilicli layup with 14:17 left before the break. The Panthers fought back after a sluggish beginning to take a three point lead with 3:21 left in the half, but Kevin Jones quickly responded for the Mountaineers by hitting a baseline jumper and then putting West Virginia back in the lead with two foul shots.

Talib Zanna scored on a tip-in with 1:22 left before the break, but Kilicli added two more points inside with 58 seconds remaining to produce the halftime score.

West Virginia even out-rebounded the Panthers — who lead the conference on the boards — 33-26. Jones grabbed 13 rebounds to go along with a game-high 16 points. Pitt’s J.J. said called being out rebounded “disappointing.”

“We always emphasize out rebounding teams by a large margin and today we didn’t come out and get that done,” he said.

Woodall led Pitt with 12 points and Moore joined him in double figures with 10 points. Three Mountaineers joined Jones in double digits with Darryl Bryant scoring 15 points off the bench and Kilicli and Gary Browne adding 14 and 12 points, respectively.

The Panthers will try to end their losing streak at home against South Florida on Sunday. Pitt fell to the Bulls 63-51 on the road on Feb. 8

“I felt we practiced hard,” Dixon said. “Our guys responded and showed improvement [in practice], but we didn’t show improvement tonight. We need to show it tomorrow. We need to respond.”