Pitt basketball’s NCAA tournament run ends in second round with 84-73 loss


AP Photo/John Bazemore

Pittsburgh guard Jamarius Burton (11)a and Xavier forward Jack Nunge (24) reach for a loose ball during the first half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Greensboro, N.C.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor


On the brink of their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2009, No. 11 Pitt basketball’s NCAA tournament run came to a screeching halt at the hands of No. 3 Xavier’s impressive offensive showing. 

The Musketeers led by as many as 20 points several times during the game, and despite a late-game comeback attempt, the Panthers simply didn’t leave themselves enough time in the end. 

Despite the loss, Pitt head coach made it clear just how proud he was of his team’s effort both against Xavier and the resilience they’ve shown all season. 

“I’m so proud of my team,” Capel said. “You know, everyone in our program and especially our players have just done such an amazing job this year. For me as their head coach and for all of our coaching staff, I am so grateful for the journey that they have taken us on, they’ve allowed us to be a part of.“

Xavier came out of the gate red-hot, directly contrasting Iowa State’s offensive struggles against the Panthers with an easy layup and a three to take a quick 5-0 lead. Luckily for the Panthers, they impressed offensively as well, overcoming early turnovers and fighting their way back to tie the game at seven three minutes into the half. 

Both teams found success in the paint and on mid range jumpers early in the half, but couldn’t get much going from behind the arc. Blake Hinson thrived on highly contested drives and stepback jump shots, but as a team the Panthers stayed away from their typical strengths, not attempting a three until more than five minutes into the period. 

Down 15-14 and suddenly finding its footing on defense, Xavier began imposing its will on the Panthers, finding graduate student forward Jack Nunge for a tough layup before junior guard Colby Jones hit a clutch three, forcing Capel to call timeout. 

First-year forward Jorge Diaz Graham brough Pitt back within three following the break on the Panthers first triple of the game, almost 10 minutes into the half. But the Musketeers wouldn’t let the Panthers take back the momentum, scoring eight consecutive points in less than a minute and extending their lead to 28-18.

Following the media timeout, Hinson made a timely three from the right side before first-year forward Guillermo Diaz Graham drew an and-one down low, bringing the Panthers back within six. 

But once again, Xavier killed any chance Pitt had drawing the game back to level, going on 12-2 offensive tear over the next four minutes and sinking the Panthers into a deeper and deeper hole. 

Down the stretch of the first half, Xavier senior guard Adam Kunkel went on a tear from beyond the arc. He shot unbelievably well the entire half, scoring 15 points on a perfect five of five from three but his three triples in the last five minutes of the half opened up a 19 point lead for the Musketeers.

With one minute left, the Panthers began to mount their comeback with a stepback three from graduate student guard Nelly Cummings and a strong layup from graduate student guard Jamarius Burton. Still, Pitt went into the locker room at halftime down 48-34 and with plenty of ground to still make up. 

As advertised, Xavier’s offense was stellar the entire half. Though the two sides stayed close early, the Musketeers simply couldn’t miss for the last 12 minutes of the first period and as a team shot more than 50% from the field and from three. Besides Kunkel’s outstanding shooting display, the Musketeers showed their offensive diversity, with Nunge scoring 14 points down low in the half. 

Offensively, the Panthers didn’t play particularly badly in the half — they shot 40% from the field and 33% from three, but dearly missed Hinson in spurts across the half due to foul trouble. He led the Panthers with nine points and was clearly Pitt’s best threat against Xavier’s defense. Notably, neither senior guard Nike Sibande or graduate student guard Greg Elliott attempted a three in the first half. 

Pitt struggled to contain Xavier’s frontcourt early in the second half, giving up consecutive layups to Jones and Nunge. On the other end, Burton played to his strengths, making two tough baskets in the first four minutes of the half and cutting Xavier’s lead to 13. 

With the two sides trading blow after blow, the Panthers felt their time beginning to run out with thirteen minutes left. No matter what they did, Pitt couldn’t find an open look from three and with that couldn’t find the momentum they needed to stage a comeback. 

Down 14 and with 11:28 left in the game, Guillermo Diaz Graham finally gave the Panthers a much needed big play on a steal and score, but immediately the Musketeers killed Pitt’s momentum with back-to-back layups in transition, extending their lead back to 16. 

For the next two minutes, the Musketeers finally went on a cold streak, missing shot after shot and giving the Panthers every opportunity to make ground back up. Instead, the Panthers went two possessions without scoring.

During that stretch, the referees became incredibly involved in Pitt’s demise, handing Hinson his fourth personal foul on a play where it looked as though the forward cleanly stripped a Musketeer drive. A few seconds later while Cummings took two free throws on the other hand, Capel earned a technical foul for yelling something prior to the first shot, sending Pitt players and fans into outrage. 

Three minutes later, Xavier extended its lead to 20 once again on two consecutive layups, putting Pitt’s dreams of advancing that much further away. Still, the Panthers wouldn’t go down easy, scoring 10 consecutive points spearheaded by a Hinson three from the logo. 

Despite cutting the deficit in half, the Panthers still had plenty of work to do with three minutes left. They quickly started fouling and cut the deficit to eight with 1:45 left on the clock on a potentially game-saving three from Elliott. 

Down the stretch, the Panthers had opportunities to cut the deficit even further, but in the end they had staged their comeback just a fraction too late, ultimately ending their remarkable postseason run with a 84-73 loss. 

Capel said that despite the deficit, he thought his team did have a genuine chance of getting back in the game, even with such little time left. 

“We lost, but I thought we kept fighting,” Capel said. “We had a chance down the stretch. We got it to 10. We had a couple of really good looks that we just missed that we could have put a little more game pressure on them.”

Though the season is over, Pitt’s graduating players reflected on their time with the Panthers and according to Burton, the program is in a great place and will be for years to come. 

“The future is bright. We put Pitt on the national stage,” Burton said. “They’re going to be able to get transfers out of the portal, and it’s up to the guys that come in to believe in Coach and believe in the program and take it from here.”