Pitt’s defensive deficiencies exposed in 74-73 loss to NC State

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Pamela Smith | Staff Photographer

Pitt men’s basketball fell short in a 74-73 loss to NC State on Wednesday, its sixth loss in seven games.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

As Pitt head coach Jeff Capel addressed his team in the huddle on Sunday, he might have had a feeling of deja vu. Just a few weeks earlier, his team had found themselves in almost an identical situation against a struggling Wake Forest team.

The Panthers, trailing by one point with under 15 seconds to play, had forced an opposing turnover with an aggressive trap on the inbounds pass — giving them one offensive possession for the win. In the same situation against the Demon Deacons, junior guard Xavier Johnson settled for a mid-range jump shot which hit the back of the rim as the Panthers’ comeback hopes bounced away. 

The rock went to junior forward Au’Diese Toney this time around, and he drove hard to the basket. Trying to find an angle to the rim, Toney put up a tough left hander which bounced hard off the edge of the backboard. Pitt sophomore forward Justin Champagnie came up with the ball on the scramble, but his prayer from the corner went unanswered. Just like against Wake Forest, Pitt fell short on its final possession, losing to NC State 74-73. 

Pitt came into the game in desperate need of a win. Since their breakthrough victory against Duke just under a month ago, the Panthers had lost five out of their last six games, including a few against teams sitting at the bottom of the ACC standings. The Wolfpack, depleted by devastating injuries, presented an opportunity for Pitt to right the ship.

But the woes that would destroy Capel’s team throughout the night appeared right from the beginning. The Panthers put together yet another disappointing defensive performance, with most of the damage coming inside the paint. Capel said the Panthers did nothing well on defense.

“They shot 57%, so there wasn’t anything that was good about our defense when the team shoots 57%,” Capel said. “We knew they were going to ball screen a lot, they were doing that and so we went to zone. We were trying to get a little bit of relief from that so we wouldn’t hopefully be in foul trouble and keep some of our better guys out there.”

Wolfpack senior DJ Funderburk has enjoyed great success against the Panthers in the past. In his sophomore season, his first year since transferring from Northwest Florida State, Funderburk enjoyed himself a coming out party against the Panthers. The 6-foot-10, 225 pound forward set season-highs of 18 points and nine rebounds as the Wolfpack held on for a 86-80 win.

Funderburk once again proved detrimental to Pitt’s defensive calculations on Wednesday, scoring 13 points on an efficient seven shot attempts in the first half. Wolfpack first-year guard Cam Hayes deserves much of the credit, though. The quick ball handler continually penetrated the Panther defense to force help over and away from Funderburk, dishing seven assists in the first frame alone. Toney seemed frustrated by the team’s start.

Yet Pitt went into the break only down one point. While the defense failed to stop a nosebleed, the offense kept the Panthers in the game, posting an impressive 61.9% field goal percentage in the first period. Toney’s steady play paced the Panthers with 14 first-half points on 5-5 shooting, including a buzzer beating three to cut the Wolfpack lead to 40-39 at the break.

Capel chose not to start Johnson and sophomore guard Ithiel Horton, two mainstays in the lineup, just as he did in Pitt’s win against Virginia Tech earlier this month. Capel said he made the decision because Johnson and Horton both collected technical fouls in the Panthers’ loss to Georgia Tech on Sunday. 

The Panthers found themselves on the receiving end of multiple technicals once again Wednesday, though. The first came early in the game, when Johnson chirped at the Wolfpack bench after hitting three. 

“It’s rough,” Capel said. “Those hurt us. You just have to try and refrain from getting the technical and just be better as a group.”

The second and third came consecutively in the final half. With Pitt trailing by four six minutes into the second half, first-year guard Femi Odukale got tangled up with Wolfpack junior forward Jericole Hellems, and got called for a technical as he rolled over Hellems. Outraged that his player received a technical while writhing on the ground in pain, Capel stormed onto the court to dispute, receiving a technical of his own.

The ensuing free throws increased Pitt’s deficit to eight, but the drama sparked a Panther run. Within minutes, Capel’s squad had cut the Wolfpack lead to 60-59. 

NC State sophomore forward Manny Bates posterized senior forward Terrell Brown a few minutes later, who had played well in crucial late-game minutes over sophomore forward Abdoul Karim Coulibaly. But the Panthers answered with a 3-pointer from Horton and a layup by Champagnie, extending the back-and-forth bout.

Johnson gave Pitt a late two-point lead with a dazzling behind the back move into a layup, but Funderburk responded with a transition bucket and a foul. The ensuing free throw gave the Wolfpack a lead they’d never relinquish.

The Panthers (9-8, 5-7 ACC) have now lost 11 straight matchups against the Wolfpack (9-9, 5-8 ACC), dating back to 2014.

“We’re just tired of losing,” Champagnie said. “We can’t blame anybody but ourselves, so we just have to get back and get together.”

The Panthers schedule doesn’t get any easier in the immediate future. Although originally scheduled to play Clemson on Saturday, Pitt announced Wednesday the postponement of the game due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing in the Clemson program. Pitt will instead play No. 16 Florida State on Saturday at 4 p.m.

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