Burton returns as Pitt sneaks past UNCW, 59-51, to earn first win

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Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

John Hugley (23) scores during the men’s basketball exhibition vs. Gannon on Nov. 1 at the Petersen Events Center.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Nothing has come easy for Pitt men’s basketball this season, even the successes.

Injuries, a suspension and two early losses made for an uneasy start to the 2021-22 campaign. But on Tuesday night, the Panthers enjoyed their first win of the year, albeit a strenuous one.

What looked like a comfortable win in the making at halftime unraveled quickly as turnovers and missed shots piled up. Still, Pitt (1-2 overall, 0-0 ACC) showed resilience on the defensive end and sank just enough free throws to secure an ugly, 59-51 victory over UNC Wilmington (1-2 overall, 0-0 CAA) at the Petersen Events Center.

It’s not how anyone wants to win, but sophomore guard Femi Odukale said beating the Seahawks still came as a relief after such a rough opening to the season. And head coach Jeff Capel said postgame that the team needs to appreciate success in all its forms.

“We haven’t won, so we should really appreciate this,” Capel said. “It’s the first win, it’s the first home win. We’ve been through a grind the past couple of weeks so hopefully it’s something we feel good about, we can learn from.”

Pitt cruised through the first half behind its defense. It jumped out to an 8-2 lead, then pushed it to 17-6. UNCW made small incursions, but the Panthers maintained a double-digit advantage entering intermission.

With renewed defensive intensity, the Seahawks made an 11-2 run in the opening minutes of the second period. In just over two minutes, they cut Pitt’s lead from 17 to eight. Three turnovers in less than four minutes since halftime for Pitt opened the door for a UNCW comeback, then a separate 12-1 burst — kick-started less than a minute after the first run — made things even more uncomfortable for the Panthers.

The Seahawks turned up the energy of their full-court press at halftime and forced Pitt into some ugly turnovers. Even when it could get the ball over midcourt, the offense left much to be desired. From the 14:32 mark through the final buzzer, Pitt made just one field goal, relying on its shaky free throw shooting to maintain distance between UNCW.

A 3-pointer from graduate guard Jaylen Fornes cut the margin to as little as two with 9:14 left in the first half and ushered a sense of dread into the Petersen Events Center.

Capel thought that UNCW’s pressure, combined with some tired legs for Pitt, aided the Seahawks’ second-half comeback.

“They just pressured a little bit more,” Capel said. “I thought we got a little fatigued. We probably missed, in the second half, about six to eight shots right there at the basket that just rolled around the rim. It was like it had a lid on it and I thought that deflated us a little bit.”

Ultimately, the Panthers did just enough, making 11 of 20 attempts from the free throw line and holding their opponent under 30% shooting from the field in the second half, to earn a victory.

Besides a win, Pitt celebrated the return of transfer guard Jamarius Burton, who missed the first two games after undergoing a procedure on his right knee on Oct. 8.

Burton, who checked in for the first time at the 15:58 mark of the first half, appeared to be shaking off some rust early. He made a couple of risky passes and sandwiched his first made shot in a Pitt uniform with two difficult attempts from the floor. But he eventually found his rhythm, adding defense, ball-handling, tough shot-making and some leadership in the midst of late-game chaos, according to Odukale.

“It feels good to have him back, because I know he’s a smart guard,” Odukale said. “He doesn’t really want to rush anything. He wants the best shot for Pitt. Since day one that he’s been on campus, He’s been all about Pitt.”

The duo of Hugley and Odukale led Pitt on the offensive end, as they have throughout the young season. Hugley posted his second double-double of the year — 13 points and 11 rebounds — and made all five free throw attempts. Odukale scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 35 minutes of work.

Graduate transfer forward Dan Oladapo got the start in place of graduate transfer forward Mouhamadou Gueye and picked up where he left off after a strong showing against West Virginia. He played 28 minutes, his most through three games, and scored nine points while collecting five rebounds and a steal.

Pitt will return to action after a couple of off days. The Panthers will welcome Towson to the Pete for a 6 p.m. tip off on Friday. The game will air on ACC Network Extra.

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