Pitt falls 79-73 to Miami in ACC Tournament’s opening round

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Pamela Smith | Staff Photographer

Nike Sibande (22) recorded season-highs in points (12), rebounds (7), shot attempts (13) and minutes (36) against the Florida State Seminoles last weekend.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball entered the ACC Tournament desperate to pull itself out of a downward spiral that goes back months.

It began with the Panthers (10-12 overall, 6-10 ACC) dropping a one-point contest to Wake Forest on Jan. 23, then snowballing into a streak during which they lost nine of 11 games, reaching its worst when junior stars Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney transferred and ending with a 79-73 loss to under-manned Miami (9-16 overall, 4-15 ACC) on the first day of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But after the long, grueling, pandemic-altered 2021 season, Pitt head coach Jeff Capel took time to thank the players for the sacrifices they made this season. He said postgame that they, along with Pitt’s medical staff, are what made this abnormally difficult season possible. 

“I’m really, really hopeful that when this [season] is finally over with … that everyone that’s involved … thanks these kids, thanks these student-athletes for allowing us to be able to work this year and thanks them for their commitment, for their perseverance, for their discipline, all of the things to enable us to have a season,” Capel said.

Capel has emphasized over and over this season how the challenges from playing during a pandemic have made this season difficult to handle and predict. Tuesday’s contest between the Panthers and Hurricanes epitomized the unpredictability of college basketball in 2021.

Pitt and Miami — two teams not known for elite offense, ranking 10th and 13th in points per game in the ACC, respectively — scored the ball with atypical efficiency on Tuesday afternoon. After either side shook off the nerves of their postseason debuts, the 3-pointers began to rain.

The Panthers and Hurricanes exchanged 11 triples over the first 20 minutes of action, and neither team was able to lead by more than seven. They used inverse strategies in their offensive attack.

Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga — down to just seven scholarship players after suffering a litany of injuries over the course of the season — dug as deep as he could into his bench. He used all seven players available and all of them scored.

Pitt, on the other hand, relied on the hot hands of two former reserves who had been thrust into larger roles because of the departures of Johnson and Toney. Senior Nike Sibande and first-year Femi Odukale offered brilliant performances as the starting backcourt.

Sibande tallied a season-high 24 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range and collected six rebounds in 39 minutes of action, also a season high.

But Odukale was the star of the afternoon for Pitt despite the loss. He set a career high in points with 28 for the third time in his last five games on 11-16 shooting from the field. Despite the strong performance, Odukale was bothered by his 50% mark shooting free throws.

“I’ve got to just keep staying in the gym,” Odukale said. “I’ve got to make my free throws. That’s what I was struggling with this year. I had a lot of confidence shooting them, but I’ve just got to knock them down so I can be a better player next year.”

Down the stretch, the Panthers’ youth and inexperience was on full display. They were ultimately undone by untimely turnovers and misses at the free throw line. With 97 seconds remaining, Pitt trailed by just three, 69-66. The Panthers proceeded to turn the ball over twice in consecutive possessions, which the Hurricanes used to extend their lead to seven with under a minute remaining. 

Pitt ended the afternoon with 14 turnovers, which Miami scored 22 points off of, and an abysmal five makes in 14 attempts from the free throw line. 

Only four Panthers — Sibande and Odukale, along with sophomore wings Justin Champagnie and Ithiel Horton — scored at all for the Panthers. Champagnie, who was named to the All-ACC First Team just yesterday, posted an inefficient, 20-shot double-double, while Horton added 10 points of his own.

Capel was positive but stern following the game, despite the conclusion of his third losing season in as many as Pitt’s head coach. He praised his team’s effort and said he was hopeful that a full offseason of work — something this year’s team didn’t get — will lead to improvements come November.

“I’m excited about our future,” Capel said. “I’m very hopeful that we have a spring and summer where we can work with the guys and help them get better. That’s one of the things that I think hurt us and any team that’s relying on young guys … I look forward to having the opportunity to do that with these guys.”

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