Pitt comeback falls short against Virginia, 59-56

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Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson led Pitt with 16 points against Virginia.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Senior Staff Writer

The defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers earned a road win in the Petersen Events Center Saturday, but a late Panther run made the game come down to the final second. Pitt junior guard Ryan Murphy couldn’t get a game-tying shot off before the buzzer sounded and Virginia escaped with a 59-56 win.

The two programs entered the contest with a stark contrast in storylines. Pitt (15-13 overall, 6-11 ACC) came into the game on a three-game losing streak, with each loss coming by double digits, and had just been placed on probation by the NCAA for violations occurring under former head coach Kevin Stallings years ago.

Virginia (19-7 overall, 11-5 ACC), alternatively, has played its best basketball of the season as of late. The Cavaliers got off to an abysmal start to the year, thanks in large part to three of the five starters from their 2019 championship run departing early for the NBA draft, but things have started to come together. They had won seven of their last eight games heading into Saturday, with the lone loss coming in a tight battle at No. 5 Louisville.

Facing Virginia’s infamous pack-line man defense has certainly proven frustrating for the Panthers in recent years. In 2018, the last time the two teams played in Pittsburgh, the Cavaliers held Pitt to seven points in the first half of a blowout. Last year, in Pitt head coach Jeff Capel’s first season with the program, Pitt couldn’t crack 50 on the scoreboard in a 24-point loss.

The Panthers, despite many rough offensive performances this year, found ways to penetrate the lane in the first half Saturday to get attempts at the rim and draw fouls. This aggressiveness, as well as seven offensive rebounds, helped Pitt keep the game close, going into the half down 29-31.

“Pitt is so good at attacking the paint,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “They beat you off of the dribble.”

Bennett, a two-time Naismith College Coach of the Year winner, praised Jeff Capel for Pitt’s improvement since the last time the two faced each other.

“[Capel] is doing a great job, I told him that before, from where they were last year,” Bennett said. “That’s how you build it. You get those young guys experience, and it’s hard in today’s college game to keep guys and get them to their upperclassmen years, but that was our model. You can just see it coming and I think he does a great job because of how hard they play.”

Sophomore guard Xavier Johnson, who has struggled mightily during Pitt’s cold stretch of the season, led the way with a disciplined, complete performance. He finished the game with 16 points, four assists and six steals.

Pitt’s physicality and aggression gave the Cavaliers trouble on the other end of the floor, forcing 16 turnovers. Sophomore guard Kihei Clark, whose calm demeanor helped lead Virginia to its title last year, seemed uncomfortable with Johnson’s pressure the whole game. Pitt held Clark, one of the ACC’s best passers, to only three assists. He also committed six turnovers of his own, the most in an ACC game of his career. 

Early in the second half, Pitt suffered another scoring drought, the likes of which has killed its chances in many games this season. After a mid-range jumper from junior forward Terrell Brown, Pitt went four minutes and 58 seconds without scoring another point. In that time, Virginia went on an 11-0 run to open the lead to 13. 

“They are the best defensive team in the country,” Capel acknowledged. “Year in and year out they’re pretty consistent there, so I think a lot of it had to do with them. They are a hard team to score against.”

Capel did recognize some improvements his team must make, though.

“Some of it was us,” he said. “We were trying to avoid contact instead of trying to go through contact. We had opportunities. We had a couple of careless turnovers that we can avoid.”

Holding a 13-point lead with under four minutes to play, it looked like the Cavaliers would coast to their fourth straight win.

The Panthers had other plans. An and-one from junior forward Terrell Brown and 3-pointer from sophomore guard Trey McGowens cut the lead to seven. With Pitt down nine with 2:48 to play, back-to-back-to-back buckets from Johnson, Toney and Johnson again cut the lead to two with 52 seconds remaining. 

“How we finished the game, that’s how we need to start from the jump,” sophomore guard Au’Diese Toney said. “Coming out, punching other teams in the mouth, and staying with our foot on the gas. Sometimes we take our foot off the gas.”

After forcing a shot clock violation on the Cavalier’s ensuing possession, McGowens missed a go-ahead 3-point attempt with under ten seconds to play. Virginia’s Braxton Key missed the back-end of a one-and-one free throw attempt, giving Pitt a final chance at forcing overtime. But Junior guard Ryan Murphy’s game-tying 3-point attempt came well after the buzzer sounded, and the Cavaliers escaped with a victory.

“The play was for Xavier to get the ball and just go play,” Capel said on the final sequence. “And hopefully Murphy could space, get to a spot and get to a shot. Unfortunately, we didn’t execute.”

Pitt will try to regroup on Wednesday for Senior Night against Syracuse.

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