Pitt handily beats Louisville, 65-53, for second conference win


Lucas Zheng | Senior Staff Photographer

Coaches and staff look on as senior guard Jamarius Burton dribbles the ball at Saturday afternoon’s game vs. Louisville.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

The 10 days that separated a 75-72 loss to Louisville on Jan. 5 and Saturday’s rematch proved valuable for Pitt men’s basketball, which recorded its best win of the season against a team that it lost 17 of its last 18 matchups to.

Pitt earned its second conference win of the season on Saturday afternoon and in doing so, continued to garner belief that its recent stretch of strong play is more than just smoke and mirrors. Head coach Jeff Capel insisted the progress was real and he now has tangible results to back up that claim.

“The stuff the guys are doing individually … it hasn’t equated to as many wins as we certainly would have liked,” Capel said. “But I know that we’re getting better. That’s the big thing for me.”

The Panthers (7-10 overall, 2-4 ACC) didn’t just beat Louisville (10-7 overall, 4-3 ACC) 65-53 for their first double-digit conference win in 11 months — they dominated. Typically, when Pitt has won this season, it was because it dragged its opponent down into a slow and messy game, counting on chaos and miscues from the opposition. But on Saturday, the Panthers won because they were simply the better team — on offense, defense and everything in between.

For a while it looked like the game was well on its way to another barn burner. The Panthers and Cardinals traded scoring runs and the lead often. The Cardinals scored their first eight points without a response from their opponents, then Pitt scored 14 of the next 17. Louisville used an 11-0 run to reclaim a five-point advantage with 7:37 left until halftime, only to miss 10 of its next 11 shots while the Panthers built a four-point lead entering the break.

After a slow first half during which he was bogged down by foul trouble, sophomore forward John Hugley dominated the second period. Hugley scored 14 of his 19 total points after intermission and his bulldozer-like style of play from the low block exacted a physical toll on the Cardinal bigs.

Hugley, who is 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, said he was “out for blood” on Saturday after only playing 19 minutes in the first matchup. He played a full game — 26 minutes — and had one thing on his mind every time he found a one-on-one matchup with Louisville’s front court.

“[They’re] too little,” Hugley said.

Pitt’s lead grew incrementally from eight — previously the largest lead that the team has held in an ACC game all season — to 10 and even stretched to as many as 16 late in the second half. The Cardinals tried desperately to fight back but each time they recovered enough to get within striking distance, the Panthers made plays that reinvigorated the crowd and deflated their opponents.

While Hugley was the center of Louisville’s attention, drawing double teams each time he touched the ball and often before, it took a balanced scoring effort for the Panthers to achieve and hold their gaudy lead. Four Pitt players — Hugley, senior guard Jamarius Burton, sophomore guard Femi Odukale and graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye — scored in double-figures.

Burton poured on 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in what Capel called his best game in a Pitt uniform to date.

“I thought Jamarius had maybe his best game since he’s played here,” Capel said. “He was strong in how he played out there, but also in how he looked, and we fed off of that.”

The Panther defense was also outstanding, holding the Cardinals into misses on two-thirds of their shots from the field and a quarter of their 3-point attempts. Gueye owned the paint on that end, recording four blocked shots and seven defensive rebounds. Capel said his team put their previous experience against Lousiville to good use on defense.

“I thought we were better with understanding and executing our game plan,” Capel said. “We understood personnel better. We understood strengths and weaknesses of each guy. We did a really good job of defensive rebounding. We did not allow them to get in transition.”

Pitt is now 2-4 in the conference, with just one game against a team with a winning ACC record on its schedule for the rest of the month. The players and coaches are allowing themselves to be positive, but optimism is still guarded.

Capel told his players all season that, despite all of the negativity that permeated the air around the program, good things were coming. It felt like a hollow message early in the season, but Pitt’s play in recent weeks has given this year a second wind. Now comes the hardest part of being successful, according to Hugley — sustaining it.

“We keep saying that we can’t get complacent after this one,” Hugley said. “We got to keep stacking wins.”

Pitt will look to add to that stack on Wednesday, when it welcomes Virginia to the Pete for a 9 p.m. tip off against Virginia. ACC Network will broadcast the second and final game between the two teams.