‘It’s a dogfight’: Pitt men’s basketball edges out Mississippi State 60-59 in NCAA tournament First Four


AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson (2) celebrates after Pittsburgh defeated Mississippi State in a First Four game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Dayton, Ohio.

By Brian Sherry, Assistant Sports Editor

March is here, bringing chaos and thrills to college basketball fans across the country. Many teams fold under the pressure of March and fall victim to upset.

But not Pitt men’s basketball.

The Panthers embraced the chaos, taking down Mississippi State 60-59 in a First Four thriller. The Bulldogs fought to the bitter end, but a clutch go-ahead shot by graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and a game-winning block by first-year forward Guillermo Diaz Graham sealed the victory for the Panthers. 

This victory was also head coach Jeff Capel’s first NCAA tournament win with Pitt. Capel joined the program in 2018, but never managed to break Pitt’s nine year tournament win drought — until this season. The Panther head coach said he is grateful for his team and the journey they have taken him and his coaching staff on.

“I am so proud to be on this journey with them,”Capel said. “I’m really proud of the journey they’ve taken us on. When I say ‘us,’ our coaching staff, because it’s been really unbelievable when you think about it from the beginning.”

Graduate student guard Nelly Cummings led the Panthers in scoring with 15 points. Cummings said the team handled the pressure of a close March game well, which contributed to the Panther victory.

“It’s a dogfight,” Cummings said. “Coming into this game, we were prepared for that. But when you’re in the dogfight it’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of emotion, a lot of attention to detail. And I think today we did a really good job of that and staying on task and understanding our assignment.”

The court was already hot both before teams even took the floor, as Texas A&M-CC narrowly defeated Southeast Missouri 75-71 in a thrilling opening game. A strong showing from Pitt fans also bolstered the Panthers. More than 12,450 people packed into UD Arena, with many of them repping the blue and gold. 

Capel expressed his gratitude toward the Pitt fans that made the trip to Dayton and even said the fans gave his team energy. 

“I want to give a big-time thank you to the fans here in Dayton,” Capel said. “You can see that they love basketball. Really want to give a huge shoutout to our fans that made the trek here to Dayton. We felt them. They gave us energy when we were a little bit tired.”

Mississippi State got off to a hot start. Despite being the worst three-point shooting team in the nation, the Bulldogs drained a three-pointer right off the bat, as junior guard Shakeel Moore connected on the first possession of the game. 

Turnovers and three-pointers defined the opening minutes of play. Both teams found success from beyond the arc in the opening minutes, but the Bulldogs were lights out from the three-point line. Mississippi State drained three shots from beyond the arc in the opening five minutes, compared to only one from Pitt. 

But Mississippi State was also sloppy offensively to start the game. The Bulldogs turned the ball over eight times in the first half, allowing the Panthers to score 12 points off turnovers. 

The game was tight for the first 10 minutes of play, with neither team able to gain a real advantage. But Pitt finally gained an upper hand right before the 10-minute mark. Redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande — with mere seconds on the shot clock — drained a three-pointer from the top of the arc, giving Pitt a hard-fought 18-14 lead.

But foul trouble halted the Panther surge with just under eight minutes remaining in the first half. Senior guard Dashawn Davis battled through Panther defenders, driving to the basket to earn the bucket and a free throw. The senior guard missed the free throw, but the Bulldogs rebounded and Davis redeemed himself by knocking down the second-chance layup. Davis’s efforts gave the Bulldogs a 23-21 lead.

The Panthers and Bulldogs traded blows in the closing minutes of the first half. Davis knocked down a three-pointer with about a minute remaining in the first, but Panther graduate student guard Nelly Cummings responded with a quick three-pointer of his own. 

Cummings’ three-pointer was the final points of the first half, as the Panthers entered the locker room holding a tight 35-34 lead. 

Both teams looked to build momentum early in the second half. Sibande found a burst of energy at the 17:15 mark, as he sprinted past Bulldog defenders to score a hard-fought layup. But Sibande committed an offensive foul on the subsequent possession, halting his attempt to take control of the game. 

Mississippi State also opted for a high-energy style of play in the second half. Following a Panther turnover, Mississippi State junior forward Cameron Matthews threw down a thunderous dunk, lighting up the Mississippi State fan base at UD Arena. 

While present all game, Mississippi State’s elite defense came to define the early part of the second half. The Bulldogs held the Panthers to just .875 points per possession through 11 minutes of play in the second half. 

Still, the Bulldogs didn’t fare much better than the Panthers on offense. Mississippi State went stale offensively after the 10-minute mark, going nearly three minutes without a bucket. But the Bulldogs held onto a 52-51 lead with 6:30 remaining in the game.

Down the stretch, Pitt took full advantage of Mississippi State’s offensive woes, turning Bulldog offensive miscues into points. With 4:46 remaining in the second half, graduate student guard Greg Elliott found himself in the middle of a Bulldog passing lane, which allowed him to intercept the Bulldog pass and earn a steal.

Mississippi State’s offensive mistakes allowed Pitt to take over in the closing minutes of the game. With just over three minutes remaining, junior forward Blake Hinston knocked down a clutch three-pointer, which drew a deafening roar from Panther fans in attendance. 

But the Bulldogs weren’t done yet. Mississippi State came roaring back, taking a 59-58 lead with 32 seconds left in the game. 

Pitt only had one possession to score before it’s time in the tournament came to an unceremonious end. With the game on the line, Burton stepped up, downing the go-ahead shot and giving the Panthers a 60-59 lead.

Burton said he felt confident as he set up for the game-winning shot.

“When I had the ball in my hands the last 30 seconds or so, I just told myself I was built for it, and I just got to a spot and let it go, and I had complete confidence in myself,” Burton said.

Mississippi State had a chance to find a game-winner of their own, but Pitt clamped down on defense. Diaz Graham then ended the Bulldogs’ hopes of a comeback, swatting a potential game-winning shot into the sidelines.

Diaz Graham said he doesn’t know how he came up with the block, especially since he was using his nondominant hand. 

“I did a block, I don’t even know how, with my left hand,” Diaz Graham said. “I usually don’t use my left hand and I blocked it, and I knew it was a big play, so I just let the energy go out.” 

Today’s victory marked Pitt’s first tournament win since 2014, when the Panthers took down Colorado in the first round. 

Pitt will now advance to the first round and take on Iowa State on Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tipoff is set for 3:10 p.m. and coverage will air on truTV.