Pitt drops ACC opener to Virginia, 57-56, on last-second shot

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AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff

Virginia players celebrate the winning basket during an NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Virginia defeated Pittsburgh 57-56.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

It was déjà vu on Friday for Pitt men’s basketball. After holding another late lead, the Panthers engineered another brutal collapse and last-second loss.

In shades of Tuesday’s defeat at the hands of Luke Loewe and Minnesota, Pitt (2-6 overall, 0-1 ACC) dropped its conference opener on the road to Virginia (6-3 overall, 1-0 ACC). Senior forward Jayden Gardner’s desperate, game-winning jumper fell after bouncing five times on a soft rim to give the Cavaliers a lead inside of one second left and eventually the win.

Friday’s contest — the first ACC game of the season for both teams — began in unfamiliar fashion. Virginia and Pitt, who had both struggled to find consistent offense through 2021’s early going, came out firing. 

The pace was slow, but in stark contrast to how either team had played so far this season, the first half was a shootout. Balanced scoring efforts on both sides made for a tight first 20 minutes. 

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While the Cavaliers shot an even 50% from the floor, Pitt put on their best 3-point shooting exhibition to date. They knocked down four triples — already its third most in a game this season — before the midway point of the first half. Senior guard Jamarius Burton knocked one down with the shot clock waning on Pitt’s first possession. Sophomore forward William Jeffress hit a pair of 3-pointers himself and first-year wing Nate Santos also made one. 

The Panthers’ proficiency from distance helped them keep pace with Virginia, but a 9-0 run gave them some breathing room — a 30-20 advantage — with 3:48 left before the break. Pitt missed seven field goal attempts in a row during that run while the Cavaliers made five in a row. 

In the second half, the two sides traded blows for almost 15 minutes of game time. Virginia inched forward briefly to a seven-point advantage. 

But Pitt struck back with an 11-0 run, fueled by six straight points from graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye. Senior guard Onye Ezeakudo — a walk-on who made just the second start of his career on Saturday night — hit a clutch, crowd-silencing 3-pointer to put the Panthers up two with 52 seconds left and Burton’s free throws, made with 25 seconds left, capped the run to give Pitt a four-point lead.

Little did anyone know that disaster waited around the corner. 

First, Gardner converted an old-fashioned three-point play, thanks to an unwise foul from sophomore forward John Hugley, to cut Pitt’s lead to one inside of 10 seconds left in the game. Then, Jeffress committed a five-second violation inbounding the ball, further inciting the crowd at John Paul Jones Arena. 

Virginia got possession back, down just one with 9.4 seconds left. First-year guard Taine Murray then misfired on a 3-pointer, but redshirt sophomore guard Kadin Shedrick tipped the offensive rebound to Gardner, who became wide open as four Panther defenders scrambled for a loose ball.

Gardner corralled the rebound, heaved a fadeaway jumper and waited in bated breath as the ball bounced five times on the rim before falling through the net. Pitt did not get a shot off on the ensuing and final possession.

After their second agonizing loss of the week, the Panthers will get six days off — their longest inter-game period of the season so far — before welcoming Colgate to the Pete for an 8 p.m. tipoff on Dec. 9.