Column | Capel’s inability to manage games continues to hamstring already depleted Panthers


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt sophomore guard Femi Odukale (2) and Virginia sophomore guard Reece Beekman (2) chase the ball at Wednesday’s game at the Petersen Events Center.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

Late game mishaps haunted the Panthers once again as they weren’t able to pull out a victory in a 66-61 loss against Virginia on Wednesday night. Inconsistent execution late in games is a recurring theme for the Panthers this season, and it’s time for someone to answer why.

Another tough loss against an ACC opponent will certainly leave a sour taste in the Panthers’ mouths. Defensive struggles and questionable offensive decisions down the stretch cut the Panthers’ late comeback short. The loss marked the Panthers’ eighth straight against Virginia.

The Panthers simply cannot finish this season. Leading 62-54 with 2:21 left in the game, it seemed the Cavaliers would coast to a conference road win. The Panthers went on a 5-0 run in the next minute to cut the lead to 62-59 with just more than 1:30 left.

A missed 3-pointer from Virginia junior guard Armaan Franklin gave the Panthers a chance to tie. The Cavaliers self-destructed, but the Panthers couldn’t capitalize on the Cavalier miscues. Two missed layups from the Panthers and an easy layup for Franklin closed the door on the comeback, silencing the crowd at the Petersen Events Center.

It’s questionable whether the Panthers should have been down eight points to begin with. The Cavaliers fouled the Panthers 12 times. Pitt shot 14 free throws in the second half.

The Panthers brought it within one and looked to regain the lead with just more than 10 minutes remaining. But they failed to score another basket for the next three minutes, leading to Virginia going on a 9-0 run.

While the offense struggled down the stretch in the second half, the Panthers’ defense had struggles of its own. Despite a rough start, the Cavaliers offense got better looks in the second half and capitalized on them. Head coach Jeff Capel’s defense had no answer for Virginia’s offense late in the first half and beyond.

“They got into a great rhythm offensively,” Capel said. “It didn’t matter what we did. Whether it was man or zone, we tried both. It wasn’t effective.”

The decision came after Virginia sophomore guard Reece Beekman hit three 3-pointers in the first half. The zone shut down the perimeter in the second half, allowing one 3-pointer. But the zone opened up midrange shots and points in the paint for the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers scored 28 points inside the arc in the second half compared to 18 in the first. 

While the players are the ones executing the defensive schemes, Capel is just as — if not more — guilty for the defensive blunders in the second half. Once Capel realized that the zone wasn’t working as planned, why didn’t the Panthers move back to a man defense? Sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick had his way with the Panthers’ zone, scoring 10 points and shooting 100% from the field in the second half. He was held to just two points in the first half.

Shedrick shredded Pitt’s defense despite being in foul trouble late in the second half. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett saw the Panthers’ shift to zone and knew it would open up looks for Shedrick.

“When they went to the zone, Shedrick made some nice eight- to 12-foot jumpers,” Bennett said. “They ended up being huge for us.”

With Shedrick’s 6-foot-11, 231lb. frame, the Panthers did not have the length to play zone against the Cavaliers. It’s a questionable decision that ended up costly for the Panthers. The zone also allowed for Virginia to out rebound the Panthers on offense 11 to nine.

Another costly decision was the offensive gameplan. The loss overshadows a great scoring night from sophomore forward John Hugley. Hugley finished with 23 points and seven rebounds.

But Hugley only attempted one shot in the last 10 minutes of the game. In a close game where every bucket matters, a coach needs to draw up plays for their best players. Capel failed to do so despite foul trouble from the Cavaliers’ big men.

Fifth-year guard Jamarius Burton made eight of his 12 points in the final 13 minutes of the game and played a big part in the Panthers’ comeback attempt — but he knew the team struggled to get Hugley involved down the stretch.

“We’re looking for [Hugley] at all times,” Burton said. “We love going to him, we just couldn’t get the ball down to him late in the game.”

While turnovers — 15 for the Panthers — and missed shots aren’t on Capel, game planning and defensive strategy is. Capel has to adjust his defense and feed the hot hands on his team to pull out close games.

The Panthers are talented enough to be over .500 at this point in the season. Close losses against Minnesota, Notre Dame and Louisville were all decided by a combined margin of five points. The margin of defeat in Pitt’s two losses against Virginia this season is a combined six points.

The players have to execute better down the stretch to pull these games out. But with the Panthers being within five points in six of their 11 losses, there is no coincidence. Capel is struggling to put his players in positions to win close games.

If this trend continues it will seal his fate as head coach of the men’s basketball team.

Time will tell if Capel and the Panthers are able to right the ship and win some close conference games to close out the season. But all eyes will be on coach Capel and he knows this.

“We just have to learn how to become a consistently good basketball team,” Capel said. “It’s hard, but we have to find a way to do it.”