Pitt basketball drops third straight against Cincinnati

By Lauren Kirschman

The No. 22 Pitt men’s basketball team had two attempts to tie the game with seconds remaining,… The No. 22 Pitt men’s basketball team had two attempts to tie the game with seconds remaining, but the Panthers were unable to convert a 3-point shot and lost their third consecutive game on Sunday night.

The 66-63 loss to Cincinnati (11-3, 1-0 Big East) marked the first time the Panthers (11-4, 0-2 Big East) have lost three straight games since the 2007-2008 season. Pitt hasn’t started Big East play 0-2 since the 1999-2000 season when the Panthers lost five straight games to start conference play.

Cincinnati’s Jaquon Parker missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28 seconds left and Pitt grabbed the rebound. But freshman guard John Johnson attempted to drive the hoop and got called for the charge, turning the ball back over to Cincinnati.

Sean Kilpatrick missed another front end of a one-and-one for the Bearcats on the next possession. Ashton Gibbs missed a 3-pointer for Pitt, but Lamar Patterson grabbed the offensive rebound. Pitt called timeout to set up a play, but Patterson missed Pitt’s final 3-point attempt to seal the victory for Cincinnati.

“We’re going to be fine,” Gibbs said. “No struggle, no reward. That’s something I live by and something we’re going through right now…At the end of the day, you’ve just got to play harder…At the end of the day, this team [Pitt] is capable of beating anybody.”

The Panthers continued with their offensive woes. Freshman guard Johnson and senior power forward Nasir Robinson did their best to keep the Pitt in the game, but even Robinson’s 19 points and 10 rebounds Johnson’s five assists couldn’t make up for the Panthers’ struggles against Cincinnati’s defense and pressure.

“We’re just missing shots,” Gibbs said. “Not taking advantage of opportunities. That’s something we have to get in the gym and do, shooting before practice and after practice.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said the Pitt needs more players to create shots with penetration.

“We need to get more penetration, I think, and get to the basket more,” Dixon said. “We’re not getting enough of it. We don’t have enough guys getting other guys shots with penetration. That’s something we were doing better earlier in the year that we aren’t doing now.”

Johnson was the only Pitt player able to consistently drive into the lane and create plays throughout the game and Dixon said the Panthers ran a play to get Johnson in the lane on the second to last possession.

“We’re putting freshman in that situation, but that’s what we have,” Dixon said. “I thought we ran a good play to get him in the lane…He made some big plays for us, made some nice passes, and he’s going to be a good player for us.”

After playing off the bench against Notre Dame, starting point guard Travon Woodall didn’t play against Cincinnati as he’s still recovering from an abdominal tear and groin strain he suffered earlier this season. The Panthers continued to miss Woodall’s ability to make plays and run the offense.

Pitt, usually known for its defensive ability, struggled on that end as well. Cincinnati finished the night with 11 steals and scored 20 points off 17 Pitt turnovers. The Bearcats shot 48 percent in the second half, including 50 percent from the 3-point line.

“We had too many turnovers and they capitalized on it,” Gibbs said. “We made too many mistakes and they took advantage of them. When the defense makes mistakes, you have to take advantage of them.”

Dixon said that Pitt’s 11 turnovers in the first half prevented the Panthers from entering the break with the lead. Instead, Pitt and Cincinnati went into halftime tied at 31. He added that the Panthers didn’t get enough loose balls and weren’t strong enough with the ball in their half court offense.

“In the second half, they made threes and we did not continue to rebound and we didn’t make threes,” he said.

Pitt shot 27 percent from beyond the arc in the second half.

Robinson said that Pitt needed to perform better defensively and Gibbs added that the Panthers have played “so-so defense” so far this season.

“[We need to] keep practicing,” Robinson said. “Don’t hang our heads. Move on to the next game and try to learn form our mistakes. We had some good practices this week.”

Cincinnati, currently missing three players – 6-foot-9 Octavius Ellis, 6-foot-10 Cheikh Mbodj and 6-foot-9 Yancy Gates – due to suspensions stemming from the fight against Xavier, continued with its small, four guard line-up agains the Panthers.

Bearcat head coach Mick Cronin said he believed the Bearcats were going to have to play a lot of zone to keep center Justin Jackson in the game and out of foul trouble.

The Bearcats use a 2-3 defense but Cronin, who said he was confident in Dixon’s ability to solve the 2-3, added a 3-2 zone yesterday. Long Beach State, who also beat Pitt at home this year, also played zone.

“Element of surprise,” Cronin said. “Sometimes you role the dice and it works out in your favor.”

Dixon said he anticipated the Bearcats playing a lot of zone.

“I certainly didn’t think that we would have problems with the zone,” Dixon said. “We knew we would see a lot of zone and we practiced against it, but we haven’t played well against the zone in games.”

Dixon said he emphasized the importance of getting the ball inside this week, particularly with the Panthers’ shooting struggles on the perimeter. He said the Panthers wanted hit shots inside and out.

“We had some really good looks that we didn’t knock down,” Dixon said. “We ran a lot of plays for Nasir [Robinson] and Dante [Taylor] against the zone. We got some inside touches, but we didn’t finish as well as we wanted to.”

Taylor, Pitt’s starting center, finished with two points, but grabbed 11 rebounds. After power forward Talib Zanna suffered a blow to the face and nose during the first half, starting power forward Nasir Robinson was forced to play at the center position. Zanna experienced concussion-like symptoms and didn’t return to the game.

Against the undersized Bearcats, the Panthers should’ve been able to take advantage inside, something that Cronin said he anticipated. But Pitt scored just two more points, 30-28, than the Bearcats in the paint.

Cronin said that entering the game, he believed that 40 defensive deflections would equal victory for the Bearcats.

“We’re going to have to steal rebounds that we can’t get because of our size and lack there of,” Cronin said. “[I said that if] we turn Pitt over 17 times, we win.”

Three Bearcats scored in double figures. Jaquon Parker led the way with 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Sean Kilpatrick added 19 points, six rebounds and three assists while Dion Dixon finished with 13 points and five rebounds.

Jackson grabbed seven rebounds, three offensive, and scored six points.

“He wanted it more,” Robinson said of Jackson’s performance inside. “He kept playing hard. He kept fighting. Never gave up.”

The Panthers led 48-47 with 12:01 left in the game after falling behind by as many as five points early in the second half. But after an Ashton Gibbs jumper gave Pitt the advantage, Kilpatrick answered for Cincinnati with a three on the Bearcats’ next possession.

The Panthers never led again. Kilpatrick credited Cincinnati’s defense, and not the shot, as the turning point in the game.

“We pressed a lot,” he said. “In walkthrough, we worked on stuff we really don’t work on, for example the zone and everything.”

He added that playing for guards makes the Bearcat press better.

“Everyone on our team is really fast and athletic,” Kilpatrick said. “We use that to our advantage so the only thing we had to do was rebound and I think we did that really well in the second half.”

After getting out rebounded 26-17 in the first half, the Bearcats were outdone on the boards 18-13 in the second half. The Panthers finished with a 44-30 advantage on the glass.

Dixon said he thought this year’s Pitt team was going to better against the press and limiting its turnovers.

“Simply put, we have been better and we need to get better against that [the press],” Dixon said.

After Kilpatrick’s 3-pointer, Pitt tied the game on a Robinson lay-up. But Cashmere Wright answered with a 3-pointer for Cincinnati and then Parker hit one foul shot to make the score 54-50. The teams exchanged points on the next five possessions before Dion Dixon scored on a dunk and hit a jumper to extend the Bearcat lead to 63-57 with 4:54 remaining.

The Panthers didn’t come closer than three points for the remainder of the game.

CIncinnati and Pitt went into the break tied at 31. The Panthers tried to pull away withs several scoring runs, but the Bearcats consistently answered with a run of their own.

With the score tied 5-5 with 16:20 left before the break, Pitt used a 8-0 scoring run to grab a 13-5 lead. But Parker responded with two straight 3-pointers for the Bearcats and, after a Johnson lay-up for Pitt, Cincinnati scored two straight baskets to tie the game at 15.

The Panthers used a 7-2 scoring run to make the score 22-17, but once again the Bearcats quickly answered as Parker hit a 3-pointer and two foul shots to tie the score at 22. Lamar Patterson answered with two foul shots for Pitt and then Gibbs hit a three to put the Panthers ahead 27-22 with 3:32 remaining in the half.

But Pitt couldn’t hold on to the lead and baskets from Dixon and Kilpatrick pulled Cincinnati within a point. After Gibbs made two free throws to put the Panthers ahead by three, Kilpatrick hit a three with a minute left in the half followed by a tip-in by Parker to knot the score at 31.

The Panthers will look to end their three-game losing skid at DePaul on Thursday. Pitt has been nationally ranked for 40 straight weeks, a streak that will likely come to an attend on Monday.

“We can’t make excuses,” Dixon said. “We have the guys to get it done.”