Takeaways from Pitt’s road loss against Georgia Tech

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Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

Au’Diese Toney pictured against Virginia Tech on Feb. 4.

By Zack Gibney, For The Pitt News

Pitt men’s basketball fell to 9-7 (5-6 ACC) after dropping Sunday’s contest against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets by a score of 71-65. This marks the team’s fifth loss in their last six games, and Pitt now sits in 11th place in the ACC after being as high as third earlier this season.

Sophomore guard Ithiel Horton led the Panthers with 18 points, going 4-8 from beyond the arc in 33 minutes on the floor, but his precision couldn’t make up for the Panthers’ abysmal first half and a seemingly endless stream of turnovers. 

After falling behind by as much as 11, head coach Jeff Capel’s squad battled back as the second half came to a close, tying the game at 55 with just over four minutes to go. But Georgia Tech finished the deal to pick up the win in a pivotal ACC contest.

The team will have plenty to think about on its flight back from Atlanta. Here’s a few takeaways from a game that had no shortage of what-ifs.

Panthers plagued by free throw shooting, a slow start and foul trouble

Sound familiar? Three issues that have held the Panthers back all season came back to haunt them once again in one of the most important games of the 2020-21 campaign.

Pitt shot a measly 8-15 (53.3%) from the line, a number that included multiple misses from junior guard Au’Diese Toney, as well as first-year guards Femi Odukale and William Jeffress. 

Since the start of ACC play, Odukale has shot a startling 36.4% from the line after going 0-2 on Sunday. While Odukale has been effective at times running the point, his free throw shooting continues to be a glaring weakness in the young guard’s game. 

On the other end, Georgia Tech performed superbly at the line, making 21-23 (91.3%), including a perfect 10-10 in the final four minutes. As Pitt tried to foul themselves back into a game in the final minutes, the Yellow Jackets held serve and kept Pitt at bay with clutch performances from the line.

The Panthers haven’t shaken their untimely free throw gaffes, and it’s costing them games.

While the offense finally showed up in the second half, its first half struggles ultimately made its deficit insurmountable. The Panthers headed into the locker room for halftime after managing to score only 22 points in the first 20 minutes of play an unfortunate familiarity for the team, as Pitt possesses a minus 34-point differential in the first half through 11 conference games. Coming out of halftime behind the eight ball has proven to be a crucial reason for Capel’s squad finishing on the wrong end of several close games.

Additionally, the trip to Georgia Tech signalled yet another game in which the Panthers handcuffed themselves due to foul trouble. Junior guard Xavier Johnson forced Capel to call him to the bench less than a minute into the second half after picking up his fourth foul. Johnson and his teammates’ foul troubles have forced Pitt’s head coach to pull the plug on a starter early on, and if nothing changes, it will happen again.

Pitt in need of a strong presence down low

Game after game, Pitt has a natural disadvantage in the paint on both sides of the ball because of its lack of a consistent big man. Due to the erratic production of the Panthers outside shooting, this has become a glaring issue as the season has progressed.

Sophomore forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly has started 15 of the Panthers’ 16 games this season as the team’s big man. After the indefinite suspension of first-year forward John Hugley, Capel tasked Coulibaly with serving the vast majority of minutes in the frontcourt for Pitt, with the exception of scattered appearances from senior forward Terrell Brown. While Coulibaly has shown flashes of starting-five potential, his inability to consistently keep up with the dynamic big men in the ACC has become apparent. 

In 37 minutes of play on Sunday, Coulibaly shot 1-5 from the floor and finished with two points and an equal number of turnovers.

Coulibaly’s role in the Pitt offense has seemingly revolved around setting picks at the top of the key and attempting to roll into the paint. It hasn’t worked. 

March will have to wait

Barring a stunning run in the ACC Tournament, the Panthers will sit on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday for the fifth consecutive season.

Despite the strong start to the season and flashes of brilliance from sophomore forward Justin Champagnie and others, this team simply isn’t built for the NCAA Tournament. We saw glimpses of the Panthers’ potential against Virginia Tech and Syracuse, where Pitt rolled out a prolific offensive attack centering around its three impact players in Johnson, Champagnie and Toney. Unfortunately, games in which all three play to their full potential remain too few and far between.

Looking back at contests such as those against St. Francis, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Wake Forest, the Panthers’ put their weaknesses on display, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. When they weren’t getting burned from behind the arc, Pitt had immense trouble defending the paint.

While many hoped to see the Panthers in the 64-team field in March after a hot start to the season, this recent skid has just about silenced any optimism.

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