Pitt reverses trend, escapes with 71-68 win over Colgate


Hannah Wilson | Staff Photographer

Pitt sophomore forward John Hugley (23) guards the ball during Thursday night’s game against Colgate at the Petersen Events Center.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Entering Thursday night’s contest vs. Colgate, Pitt men’s basketball had dropped four games in a row, the latest two of which had come on game-winning shots in the final seconds. Against both Minnesota and Virginia, the Panthers lost despite playing some of their better basketball of the season.

So of course, there the Panthers were again on Thursday night, nursing a two-possession lead over Colgate as the clock rolled inside of four minutes. The same movie was unfolding for the third time in a row, but this time the Panthers ended up on the winning end of a one-possession game.

Head coach Jeff Capel said postgame that this win was important for his team’s growth, particularly because it unfolded in similar fashion to the last two losses.

“One of the things we talked about when we got back after Virginia was ‘almost,’” Capel said. “We’ve been a team, the past few games, of ‘almosts.’ We almost got the rebound, we almost did this and whatever … One of the things we talked about was that we had to get past ‘almost’ and I think we did that tonight.”

Pitt (3-6 overall, 0-1 ACC), with a pair of devastating losses still close in their rearview mirror, appeared as if it was about to drop another heartbreaker. Instead, the team scored the last six points of the game against Colgate (4-6 overall, 0-0 Patriot) and won, 71-68 on Thursday night at the Petersen Events Center.

Senior guard Onyebuchi Ezeakudo hit a 3-pointer with 5:37 left in the second half to put Pitt up 63-57. The Raiders scored the next five points to draw within one, before Pitt sophomore forward John Hugley sank a free throw. But then Pittsburgh native and Colgate’s senior guard Nelly Cummings scored the next six points to give his team their first lead since the 19:46 mark of the second half.

With the Raiders leading by three inside of one minute left to play, graduate transfer forward Mouhamadou Gueye rolled a layup off his fingers through an attempted change from Keegan Records and into the basket for an and-one bucket. He made the ensuing free throw to tie the game at 68 all with 51 seconds left.

After getting a stop on the next possession, Hugley took the ball on the baseline, spun around his defender and scored a layup while falling to the ground. That shot gave the Panthers a two-point advantage with 19 seconds left that they did not relinquish.

Capel said postgame that it took a gritty effort to defend their lead in the closing minutes.

“I thought we made plays down the stretch,” Capel said. “We made toughness plays.”

The Panthers started hot. They looked as smooth and in control during that first half as they have all season. Pitt moved the ball with purpose and, even when the shots didn’t fall, got open looks. They hit four of their first eight shots, held a dynamic Colgate offense to just one make and held a 10-2 lead entering before the first media timeout.

It was a similar story in the second half, when the Panthers went on a 12-1 run before the under-16 media timeout to take a nine-point lead, their largest of the game to that point. The Panthers outscored the Raiders 22-3 in the first four minutes of both periods combined.

But every time Pitt was able to create separation, Colgate would answer with a run that trimmed the deficit to within one or two possessions. Nonetheless, the Panthers executed their game plan well enough on both ends to win.

Colgate, a team that entered the Pete having converted on 40% of their 3-pointers this season, made just 27% of their attempts from deep on Friday night. Capel said postgame that the Panthers had four areas of focus when reviewing 3-point defense during this week’s practices, and that his team did well in all of them.

“The first one was transition,” Capel said. “We wanted to make sure we found guys in transition … the second thing was that we wanted to contain penetration … third thing was ball screen defense. We wanted to make sure we did a good job there … and the last thing was offensive rebounds. They get a lot of 3-pointers off of offensive rebounds, which is one of the best times to get 3-pointers.”

On the offensive end, Hugley overcame foul trouble to lift Pitt with his scoring. After sitting for most of the first half, he was aggressive out of the gates in the second. Despite being the target of double-teams every time he touched the ball, Hugley scored a game-high 22 points, 18 of which came in the second half.

Capel said postgame that, because of Hugley’s shortened 2020 season, he still sees the star big man as a first-year. He has a lot to learn, but is gradually learning how to play when at the top of opponent scouting reports.

“He was a good high school player so he had to deal with it a little bit there,” Capel said. “Certainly this level is very different. He doesn’t have a lot of experience with it in college … but I think he’s handled it well. The other thing I think he’s done well is playing through physical [defense].”

Capel said his team is tired after three straight close, emotional games, but relieved as well. According to the head coach, getting this win felt like confirmation of what he’s told his team for weeks — that good things will come if Pitt works for them.

The Panthers are back in action this weekend against Monmouth. They will welcome the Hawks to the Pete for a 7 p.m. tipoff on Sunday night. ACC Network will broadcast the game.