Panthers surrender late lead in 67-65 loss to Syracuse


Nate Yonamine | For the Pitt News

Pitt redshirt sophomore forward Cynthia Ezeja (14) tries for a basket at Sunday’s game against Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center.

By Will McGlynn, Staff Writer

Pitt women’s basketball (11-13 overall, 2-11 ACC) took on Syracuse (11-12 overall, 4-9 ACC) in a rematch of its earlier loss at the Carrier Dome just over two weeks ago. Sunday’s matchup did not disappoint and featured multiple clutch plays, as Syracuse came from behind to beat Pitt 67-65.

Sunday also marked Pitt’s annual breast cancer awareness game, known as the Pink the Pete game, and the crowd came out in full force to support breast cancer survivors and the Panthers.

Pitt head coach Lance White spoke often earlier in the season about winning tight matchups like this one, and the Panthers had a prime opportunity. Early in the fourth quarter, though, Pitt struggled to score. With just under eight minutes to go, the Panthers turned the ball over two possessions in a row due to the pressure from the Syracuse zone. They started to unravel late in the game to the dismay of the players and coaching staff.

“We need to lock in for 40 minutes instead of 39 minutes,” junior guard Amber Brown said.

Pitt had difficulty breaking the Syracuse press, oftentimes having trouble getting the ball inbounds. The Panthers continued to dominate in the paint, but eventually Syracuse climbed back into the game and tied it at 61 with just over four minutes remaining. Sophomore guard Liatu King would hit a big interior shot with 3:44 remaining to put Pitt on top, 63-61.

Senior guard Jayla Everett had good looks, but couldn’t connect on back-to-back dagger 3-pointers. A questionable foul call on Brown sent Syracuse sophomore guard Teisha Hyman to the line on the following possession, where she hit two big free throws to tie the game with 1:36 remaining. Another foul on King sent Syracuse senior forward Alaysia Styles to the line for two more free throws with 1:05 remaining. She made both to give the Orange their first lead since the first quarter, 65-63.

King would then make a pivotal layup on the other end to tie the game at 65, off of an assist from junior guard Dayshanette Harris. Then it all came down to Everett and Hyman, isolated on the right side of the court. Hyman drove left, stopped and then hit the game-winning jump shot to put Syracuse ahead by two with 9.4 seconds remaining.

Pitt got one more shot at taking the game back, but couldn’t convert. Brown got trapped with the ball and no open options, forced into a contested jump shot as time expired.

“We were there,” White said. “We just didn’t get it.”

White pointed to frequent turnovers as the main issue, giving Syracuse stars more chances to convert down the stretch.

For the bulk of the game, it looked like Pitt was going to run away with a win. The Panthers came out with a vengeance following the lost battle in the paint against North Carolina. Junior Center Rita Igbokwe got going early with six easy points within the first five and a half minutes. Brown also came out hot, scoring six early points before the media timeout, putting the Panthers up, 12-9.

Pitt also put more pressure on the star Syracuse guards, forcing a lot more early turnovers and making the Orange hold the ball late into the shot clock. The high intensity and pressure gave the Panthers a 20-13 lead at the end of the first quarter.

But in a turn of fortunes for Pitt, the second quarter started with an injury to sophomore forward Taisha Exanor. She appeared to land awkwardly on an attempted layup. Exanor had already provided a great spark off the bench, scoring five points and ripping down an offensive rebound. Exanor eventually came back later that same quarter and appeared to play at full speed.

Pitt junior guard Dayshanette Harris (1) dribbles the ball at Sunday’s game against Syracuse at the Petersen Events Center. (Nate Yonamine | For the Pitt News )

Despite the injury, Pitt remained electric. The Panthers were all over the court, grabbing offensive rebounds on missed free throws, making shots difficult and getting the crowd excited. One sequence that got the crowd on its feet was when Igbokwe swatted a shot with about 6:10 remaining that the Panthers kept inbounds.

Pitt couldn’t quite pull away from Syracuse, though. Styles and Hyman both scored double-digit points in the first half to keep the Orange close. Both were excellent coming off screens and hitting easy mid-range jump shots. Pitt entered the half up 34-31.

Igbokwe immediately established herself as a force in the paint to start the second half. She challenged all of the interior shots Syracuse attempted, and scored the first points of the half.

Everett continued to shoot well from beyond the arc, as well. This led to lots of open lanes for Brown and other Panthers to attack the basket. King also provided a nice spark on the interior.

“[Liatu] is such a huge part of what we are doing,” White said. “Missing her for those couple of games was big … we need her on the floor.”

Both teams ran a press defense throughout most of the game, but Syracuse was much more effective with its 2-2-1 press than Pitt was with more of a 1-2-2 setup. Syracuse often swung the ball laterally which easily broke through the Pitt zone, but Syracuse was able to force Harris to dribble through the press often, leading to a couple of turnovers.

The Panthers look ahead to traveling to play Boston College (15-9, 6-7 ACC) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the ACC Network Extra.