Hot-shooting second half pushes Pitt past Orange, 64-53


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Guard Jamarius Burton (11) dribbles the ball during the Pitt vs. Minnesota men’s basketball game at the Petersen Events Center on Nov 30.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

The trademark Syracuse 2-3 zone had always seemed to cast a hex on Pitt men’s basketball.

Every time the Panthers met the Orange — particularly during the tenure of head coach Jeff Capel — the zone flustered them to maddening ends and resulted in a 2-5 mark against their upstate New York rivals over the past three years.

For the first 20 minutes on Tuesday night, Pitt seemed destined for another dismal offensive performance and subsequent loss. But in a tale of two halves, the Panthers (8-12 overall, 3-6 ACC) downed rival Syracuse (9-11 overall, 3-6 ACC), behind some scorching shooting in the second half. They beat the Orange 64-53 in a win made more cathartic by their historic futility against this particular opponent, according to senior guard Jamarius Burton.

“It felt great,” Burton said. “It shows that, if you put in the work, that it pays off on gameday. And I think all of us did that.”

In shades of their 16-point defeat at the Carrier Dome exactly two weeks ago, the Panthers were brutally ineffective on offense for the first 15 minutes of the game. They made just one of their first 10 shots and their field goal percentage dipped to as low as 17% inside of six minutes left in the half.

The radical turnaround that followed wasn’t random. Sure, shots began to fall at a better rate than they had, but the comeback started on the defensive end and the Panthers sustained it with tremendous rebounding.

With 5:32 left in the first half, senior guard Onyebuchi Ezeakudo wrestled the ball away from Joseph Girard and took it the length of the court for a layup. His steal sparked a 9-0 run that, because of the low-scoring nature of this game, felt like it was much more lopsided.

Syracuse’s leading scorer, senior guard Buddy Boeheim, capped the half with a back-breaking 3-pointer from well beyond the arc after a pair of offensive rebounds extended a good defensive possession by Pitt and put the Orange up four entering intermission. But it proved to be just a momentary relief for his team.

Ezeakudo nailed a 3-pointer to start the half and the Panthers began knocking down triples with startling frequency. They stayed within arm’s length for the first few minutes before unleashing a ferocious combination of fast defense and offense.

By the time coach Jim Boeheim was able to call timeout at the 11:33 mark of the second half, the Panthers had scored seven in a row and 12 of the last 15, sparked by an unconscious stretch from Burton, who made three 3-pointers and scored 15 points in the second half. After mustering just 24 points in the entire first half, the Panthers put up 23 before the midway point of the second. They made five of their first seven 3-point attempts in the second period. 

Burton led Pitt in scoring, but he was aided by three other double-digit scoring efforts from graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye, sophomore forward John Hugley and Ezeakudo, who — 11 days removed from receiving a full scholarship — recorded a career high in points with 11.

After dropping their first three conference games in excruciating fashion, the Panthers are continuing to climb the ACC standings. They leapfrog the Orange with this win, and will have another opportunity to pass a conference foe ahead of them when they travel to face Boston College on Saturday. Pitt and the Eagles will tip off at 4 p.m. on ACC Network.