Pitt knocks off Syracuse 99-82 thanks to clinical second-half shooting


Jonathan Guo | Staff Photographer

Sophomore center Federiko Federiko (33) scores a layup against Syracuse during the Pitt men’s basketball game Saturday night.

By Jermaine Sykes, Senior Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, Syracuse’s head coach made comments accusing Pitt of “[buying] a team” in an ESPN article. The comments enraged Pitt fans, especially on social media, making Saturday’s matchup a highly-anticipated one.

Sure enough, the Petersen Events Center filled to capacity Saturday afternoon and the Oakland Zoo came to play, chastising Orange head coach Jim Boeheim and players all night long. The players followed their lead, and on senior night, the Panthers (21-8, 14-4 ACC) defeated the Orange (16-13, 9-9 ACC), 99-82.

Following the game, Boeheim backtracked his comments, saying he didn’t mean to single out Pitt in his comments regarding their NIL involvement. He also gave a sign of solidarity to the Oakland Zoo.

“They’re a good crowd,” Boeheim said. “They always have been.”

Junior forward Blake Hinson led all scorers with 22, but six Panthers finished in double digits. The win, accompanied by Miami and Virginia losses, moves the Panthers into first place in the ACC with two games to go.

Graduate student Jamarius Burton started the scoring with a three-pointer, which electrified the Oakland Zoo so much that the head referee gave the student section a warning. The ref’s comments combined with a 9-2 run from the Panthers to start the game only fired them up more. 

“What an unbelievable atmosphere,” Panthers’ head coach Jeff Capel said. “These guys and the Zoo have an unbelievable connection.”

Hinson came off the bench for the first time all season, as senior guard Nike Sibande got the start for senior night. But it didn’t slow Hinson down, as a quick three-pointer from the forward pushed the Panthers’ lead to eight.

Three quick three-pointers from senior guard Joseph Girard III and sophomore forward Benny Willams tied the game at 17 a few minutes later. Girard and Williams carried the weight offensively for the Orange, scoring the team’s first 17 points with eight and nine respectively. 

Williams, who scored five of his 15 season three-pointers on Saturday, surprised Capel and the Panthers with his offensive output.

“Benny Williams was unbelievable today,” Capel said. “He was a guy we wanted to help off of, and he made us pay.”

An and-one dunk from senior center Jesse Edwards gave the Orange their first lead of the game at 20-19.

A back-and-forth ensued, with the Panthers tying the game back up at 22. Hinson drained two more three-pointers, giving the Panthers a 28-24 lead with 5:01 remaining.

Orange first-year guard and former Pitt commit Judah Mintz got his first bucket of the game at the 4:09 mark of the first half. Mintz, the Orange’s second-leading scorer with 16 points per game, finished with just three points in the first half. The Oakland Zoo harassed him every time he touched the court, chanting “Traitor!”

Mintz’s layup, followed by two other Orange layups gave them a 30-28 lead. But the Panthers took back the momentum on a 9-5 run, going into halftime with a 37-33 lead. 

Uncharacteristic turnovers plagued the Orange in the first half. They relinquished the ball six times, which the Panthers turned into 11 points.

Offensively, the Panthers got open looks, but couldn’t convert on them. Pitt shot just 11-35 from the field and 5-21 from three, but did just enough to hold a lead. 

Hinson, who made three of the Panthers’ five first-half threes, opened up the second half with two more to give the Panthers a 43-34 lead. Hinson only shot 6-17 from three on Saturday, which isn’t up to his usual standard, but he stayed resilient and kept shooting through his slump. 

The Panthers and Orange exchanged buckets, with the Panthers maintaining a 48-40 lead. An alley-oop from Cummings to Sibande on an inbound lob lit up the Petersen Events Center and led to a 13-9 run by the Panthers, giving them a 12 point lead with 12:37 remaining.

Mintz held the hot hand for the Orange at the start of the second half, with 13 points. Mintz and Williams cut the Panthers’ lead down to eight. But their momentum didn’t last for long, as graduate student guard Greg Elliott sank two three-pointers to give the Panthers a 71-58 lead with 10:06 remaining.

Elliott, one of the ACC’s best three-point shooters, failed to convert on five attempts in the first half. But in the second, Elliott got out of his slump, hitting five of six, including a fourth that pushed the Panthers’ lead to a game-high 18 with just 4:53 remaining. 

“I told him to not drop his head,” Capel said. “I told him to keep shooting and he got into a rhythm in the second half.

First-year forward Guillermo Diaz Graham played big minutes for the Panthers in the second half. Diaz Graham’s four points, three rebounds and two blocks were good enough for a standing ovation from the Petersen Events Center crowd and a nod from his head coach

“I thought Guillermo was unbelievable in the second half,” Capel said. “I’m happy for him because he has worked his butt off.”

Mintz and Edwards scored 26 points for the Orange in the second, but it wasn’t nearly enough for a comeback. The Orange had five players score in double digits, but their 2-3 zone was ineffective, as they allowed the Panthers to shoot 55% from three in the second half. They switched to a full-court press as a last attempt, but it wasn’t effective. 

“Once we started pressing we knew we were going to give up open shots,” Boeheim said. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in our defense today.”

Aidan Fisch, a senior forward and the team’s former student manager, checked into the game and scored a quick layup to seal the deal on a 99-82 Panthers win. Fisch’s bucket set both the bench and the crowd into pandemonium, and his teammates mobbed him at the buzzer.

“That was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Cummings said. “It was pure adrenaline.”

The first-place Panthers control their own destiny down the stretch, with two more wins giving them the ACC crown. Their next game is at Notre Dame on Wednesday, and fans can tune in at 7 p.m. on the ACC network.