Second half surge lifts Pitt over NC State, 71-69, for first time since 2014


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

John Hugley (23) scores during the men’s basketball exhibition vs. Gannon on Nov. 1 at the Petersen Events Center.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Pitt men’s basketball entered Saturday having lost 12 straight games to NC State. Not only have the defeats been plentiful, but they’ve been agonizing, too. Eight of those dozen losses have come by nine points or less, including a 74-73 loss at the Petersen Events Center suffered almost exactly one year ago.

When the Wolfpack (10-16 overall, 3-12 ACC) and Panthers (10-16 overall, 5-10 ACC) clashed Saturday, it was a battle of two teams trying to avoid last place in the ACC. Pitt threatened to give the game away multiple times late during the close contest, but timely scoring from junior guard Ithiel Horton put the Panthers over the top for a 71-69 win.

After falling behind by five at halftime, the Panthers shot 52% from the field and 100% from the free-throw line in the second half en route to the team’s second consecutive win in ACC play, a feat not accomplished in well over a year.

Offensively, they were versatile and attacked the Wolfpack from multiple angles. It started with sophomore forward John Hugley, who recorded nine points and six rebounds in the first half, drew fouls and passed effectively out of double-teams.

Hugley turned in a vintage, dominant stat line — 21 points, 10 rebounds and 13-15 from the free throw line — after struggling during his last few contests. His career-high six assists, all of which came in the second half, changed the game and forced NC State to abandon heavy-handed defensive tactics.

Hugley, who head coach Jeff Capel claims is “still a freshman” because of how much time he missed last season, had not looked like the same kind of interior force over his past few appearances. Capel went as far to start Hugley on the bench when his team traveled to Virginia Tech last week.

Following the game, Capel underscored how much Hugley’s timeline has differed from that of normal second-year college basketball players, and praised the young forward’s willingness to take coaching while in a slump.

“[Hugley] didn’t get past December last year,” Capel said. “And so January, especially late January, and February are always difficult times for freshmen, which is basically what he is. You normally hit a wall. … He’s been receptive [to coaching]. He’s been down on himself but we’re trying to get him out of it.”

Hugley’s teammates, namely Horton and senior guard Jamarius Burton, were the beneficiaries of Hugley’s passing. They combined to score 34 points, 26 in the second half. Horton’s contribution came at a desperate time for the Panthers, when they were threatening to give the game away. Known for his 3-point shooting, Horton was an effective ball-handler who helped break NC State pressure, clutch scorer from inside of the arc and confident free-throw shooter.

Horton, who missed the first half of the season while suspended, is finally back in the swing of things for Pitt and has now started back-to-back games for the first time this season. After playing all but 58 seconds in Saturday’s win, Horton said he’s still adjusting to game speed but added that his conditioning will catch up with time.

“It was really tough,” Horton said. “My body’s still adjusting. … I’ve just been mentally pushing through it right now. … But I’m going to be playing these minutes whether I like it or not, so I’ve got to get back [in shape].”

Horton’s efforts countered the many and varied unforced errors that put a likely win for Pitt in doubt.

Late in the second period, sophomore point guard Femi Odukale coughed the ball up while he and Hugley celebrated an emphatic block. On the same possession, NC State redshirt sophomore guard Dereon Seabron scored an open layup. Hugley later sailed an outlet pass over Horton’s head and into the Pitt bench with 37 seconds left to play, leading to a back-breaking 3-pointer from NC State senior forward Jericole Hellems.

Graduate forward Mouhamadou Gueye, whose tendency to fall into foul trouble has hindered Pitt’s late game performance in the past, committed weak and poorly timed fouls before his fifth disqualified him for the remaining three minutes of play.

The mistakes opened the door for NC State every time Pitt had a chance to put it away for good. Seabron, who Capel called a “dynamic” player in transition, capitalized when the Panthers gave him an opening. He scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half and 13 in the final seven minutes.

Even though his team escaped with a win, Capel said these kinds of errors have, and will, cost them.

“We have to be better in those situations,” Capel said. “There’s so many ways in this game that you can lose. … I’d like to think that we’re getting better, but we can’t continue to make mistakes like that.”

Nevertheless, Pitt has built some momentum, however small it may be, following wins over Florida State and NC State. The Panthers, who have played four games over the last seven days, will go for their third-straight ACC win on Wednesday, after three days of rest.

Pitt will visit North Carolina for an 8 p.m. tipoff, airing on the ACC Network.