Hinson’s double-double hoists Pitt men’s basketball to win in regular season opener


Colleen Nguyen | Staff Photographer

Graduate student guard Jamarius Burton (11) dribbles the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Tennessee Martin on Monday night.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball opened its regular season against the UT Martin Skyhawks on Monday night in front of the Oakland Zoo. Fans endured a long and eventful offseason, but the Panthers delivered an optimistic start to the season.

The Panthers pulled out an 80-58 victory at home over the Skyhawks, fighting back from a rather slow start to pull out a win on opening night. Junior forward Blake Hinson led all scorers with 27 points and 13 rebounds in his regular-season debut with the Panthers. Hinson said it felt good to finally get on the court and wear the Pitt script on his jersey.

“It’s awesome being here, and it’s felt good since I’ve been here,” Hinson said.

The Panthers underwent drastic changes this offseason, adding eight new players through recruitment and the transfer portal. It didn’t help that the Panthers started without two of their five returning players from last season, as junior forwards John Hugley IV and William Jeffress sat out due to injury.

Despite their absences, the Zoo was rocking from the opening tip-off. But the Panthers stumbled out of the gate. 

The Panthers and Skyhawks were tied at two points apiece through four minutes. The Panthers were reckless with the basketball, shooting just 13% from the field and turning it more than three times.

After a media timeout, the Panthers came to life as sophomore center Federiko Federiko threw down a lob from senior guard Nelly Cummings. Federiko answered the call again with another slam two possessions later. Head coach Jeff Capel gave kudos to Federiko, saying he was paramount to the Panthers’ success against the Skyhawks. 

“A big reason for our success was the guy to my left [Federiko],” Capel said. “His energy, his talk, his ball screens, the way he protected the basket. It was all contagious for our players to start the game.

Sophomore center Federiko Federiko (23) dunks the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Tennessee Martin on Monday night. (Colleen Nguyen | Staff Photographer)

Anytime the Panthers scored, the Skyhawks responded with points of their own to start the game.  

Things opened up for the Panthers after a quick score from Cummings and a three-ball from Hinson. But the Panthers didn’t seize the momentum.

Junior forward Blake Hinson (2) shoots the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Tennessee Martin on Monday night. (Colleen Nguyen | Staff Photographer)

The Panthers out-rebounded the Skyhawks 28-16 in the first half — including 10 offensive rebounds. But they just couldn’t knock down their open looks to start.

The Panthers led 11-8 heading toward the 10-minute mark when they went on an 8-0 run out of nowhere. Hinson once again struck for three. Cummings and Fedriko connected again on the next possession. A three from guard Greg Elliott on the next possession forced a Skyhawks timeout.

After the burst of scoring, the Panthers and Skyhawks exchanged buckets but the turnover bug returned for both teams. 

Despite missing Hugley, the Panthers were dominant in the paint. Federiko and senior guard Nike Sibande came up with blocks and twin forwards first-year Guillermo and Jorge Diaz Graham imposed down low. Capel said he thinks this is the best his team has looked on defense in some time.

“I think this is the best we’ve played defensively since our group has been together,” Capel said. “We’ve been working on it and we really did a good job on that side of the basketball.”

The Panthers shot just 23% from beyond the arch in the first half. But they ended on a hot note as two of their returning players, graduate-student guard Jamarius Burton and Sibande hit threes on back-to-back possessions to end the first half with a 37-24 lead.

The Skyhawks couldn’t get it going in the first. The Panthers didn’t give the Skyhawks any free shots. The Skyhawks didn’t help themselves either, missing four shots from the line. 

The Panthers made adjustments in the second half and jumped out to a quick 9-2 run. Cummings put an exclamation point on the streak with a four-point play to extend the Panthers’ lead to 20.

Redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande (22) dunks the ball during Pitt men’s basketball’s game against Tennessee Martin on Monday night.
(Colleen Nguyen | Staff Photographer)

With so much turnover and increased depth, Capel utilized multiple different lineups and rotations. Cummings and Burton, though, ran the backcourt and dished assists left and right. Elliott was hot to start the second half with two three-pointers. Elliott’s energy and ability to get the crowd fired up is something the Panthers haven’t had in the past few seasons. 

The Skyhawks followed this up with a quick 6-0 run but a Hinson layup halted the streak.

Hinson jammed in a dunk off of a steal and raised the roof to fire up the crowd and extended the lead to 28. 

The big run shut the door on the Skyhawks. The Panthers and Skyhawks exchanged a few buckets down the stretch of the second half. Sibande got going with his second three-pointer of the game and a possession where he grabbed three offensive rebounds. Along with a plus-13 rebound differential, the Panthers also drew six charges on the defensive end. 

The Panthers handled business in their home opener, but will now pivot to their next opponent — the West Virginia Mountaineers. The hardwood edition of the Backyard Brawl will tip off at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Petersen Events Center.