Pitt captures first NCAA Tournament round of 64 win since 2014, outpaces Iowa State 59-41


AP Photo/John Bazemore

Pittsburgh forward Guillermo Diaz Graham (25) battles Iowa State’s Robert Jones (12) and Tre King (0) for a rebound during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 17, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

No. 11 Pitt has one of the NCAA tournament’s most experienced rosters. Three of their most experienced players, graduate student guards Nelly Cummings and Greg Elliott along with junior forward Blake Hinson have March Madness experience. The one common denominator between their experiences are four first round exits without a tournament win. 

But this year in Greensboro, on college basketball’s biggest stage, Pitt and its experienced core got a second taste of tournament success, eviscerating the Cyclones for the first 10 minutes of the contest and eventually cruising to a 59-41 victory.

About a week ago, Duke ran Pitt out of Greensboro in one of the Panthers most lopsided losses of the season. Throughout the entire game, Pitt had no answer to the Blue Devils size and scoring ability, resulting in an embarrassing 27-point ACC tournament loss. Against the Cyclones, Pitt completely flipped the script on their former early-game struggles, taking a sizable lead early and never relinquishing it. 

For Pitt, the win is its first NCAA tournament Round of 64 win since its 2014 first round victory against Colorado

The Panthers got their early spark from an unexpected source — first year center Guillermo Diaz Graham. He started in place of banged up first-year center Federiko Federiko for the second consecutive game. 

Against Mississippi State, Diaz Graham made the most of his time, even coming up with a clutch block in the game’s final seconds. Still, he looked exhausted at points of the game, and struggled shooting as a result. 

Against Iowa State, with Federiko available to back him up this time, Diaz Graham looked incredibly confident in the opening minutes. He made his impact on both ends of the floor, snagging Pitt’s opening two rebounds before putting the Panthers up 3-0 on a three pointer from the top of the key. 

Diaz Graham added two more points and a decisive block on the ensuing possessions before graduate student guard Greg Elliott sank three free throws to give Pitt an early 10-1 advantage. Just a minute later, junior forward Blake Hinson and graduate student guard Nike Sibande sank consecutive deep threes, further extending the Panthers lead to 18-2. 

Halfway through the first period, Pitt held an unbelievable 22-2 lead. The Panthers played nearly flawless offense in the first 10 minutes — yet somehow their defensive performance was even more impressive. Pitt prevented Iowa State from scoring a single field goal in those first 10 minutes. 

The Cyclones finally scored their first points from the floor on a layup by senior guard Jaren Holmes with 9:55 left in the half, bringing their fans to life for the first time all day.  

But that one basket was all it took for Iowa State to bully its way out of almost certain defeat. 

The Cyclones heralded defense finally started to click, igniting a tale of two halves in the first period. While the Panthers couldn’t get anything going again on offense, Iowa State capitalized on every opportunity its defense generated, quickly crawling back on a blistering 19-6 run and putting the Panthers firmly on their heels for the first time all afternoon.

Before the end of the half, Iowa State cut Pitt’s lead to as little as five points with 41 seconds left. Graduate student guard Jamarius Burton sank two free throws before the end of the half, extending Pitt’s lead to seven at the break. 

By the end of the first half, both teams generally struggled on offense, despite both going on their own respective scoring sprees. Iowa State ended up making more field goals in the half, but the Panthers tremendously outpaced them in free throws, outscoring the Cyclones 15-4.

Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said he was proud of his team’s defensive effort throughout the evening and how they’ve rebounded from their woes in early March.

“We got off to an unbelievable start, we withstood a run from them, we came back at halftime and we got our offense organized again and we did a really good job at attacking them,” Capel said. “But the main thing the whole time was our defense. It allowed us to keep a lead, to extend a lead and it’s the reason why we won the basketball game.”

Elliott expanded on Capel’s sentiment regarding the team’s defense, speaking from experience on how important defending becomes late in the season. 

“We knew that in the last month of the season we had a chance to do something big but we didn’t because of our defense,” Elliott said. “Our defense wasn’t up to par and we knew if we wanted to win games in march, we had won some early, but if you want to win you have to play some defense and rebound, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”

On paper, the second half simply continued the scoring trends of the first half — strong defense on both ends of the floor that kept points to a minimum. In reality, both offenses just couldn’t make anything happen, combining for just five field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half. 

Although Pitt struggled offensively, Iowa State’s woes were far worse. Down 10 points with 10 minutes left in the game, the Cyclones slowly watched the deficit slowly increase over the next six minutes, with the Panthers going on a methodical 10-0 run and extending their lead to 20 points with four minutes left. 

From there, the Panthers cruised down the stretch without any sort of challenge from the Iowa State offense. In an offensive struggle in all regards, the Panthers still managed to substantially outshoot the Cyclones, doubling their shooting percentage for the game and making an impressive 25 of 29 free throws. 

Pitt moves on to play No. 3 Xavier in the Second Round on Sunday in Greensboro. Gametime is TBD.