Men’s basketball: Pitt mounts a late comeback, but falls short in loss to Seton Hall

By Jay Huerbin

In a game that featured a couple hometown storylines, the Panthers couldn’t control the ball… In a game that featured a couple hometown storylines, the Panthers couldn’t control the ball — or the game — when they needed to and fell to the Seton Hall Pirates 64-61 today.

The loss was the second in a row for the No. 11 Panthers (15-4, 5-2 Big East), who lost to Georgetown on Wednesday night and saw the end of their 31-game home win streak.

Sophomore guard Ashton Gibbs, returning home after growing up in nearby North Orange, N.J., and playing basketball at Seton Hall Prep, scored 23 points, but was 1-of-7 from beyond the arc, including two missed desperation attempts with seconds remaining in the game.

“I felt confident about the first one,” Gibbs said about his final two shots. “I really thought it was going in. The second one, I didn’t have a good look and rushed it up there.”

Gibbs, who made each of his 14 free throw attempts, scored more than 20 points for the seventh time this season.

For the Pirates (12-6, 3-4), the game marked the first time Herb Pope played against the team he committed to and later retracted from in 2007. Pope, who played for Aliquippa High School and ranked among the nations top recruits for his class and position, score 19 points against the Panthers and fell one board shy of a double-double.

“This is a stepping stone for us to learn and build from this, and try to grow,” Pope said. “We still had some mental lapses down the stretch and at the end of the game where it was shaky.” Pope is in his first playing season for Seton Hall after transferring from New Mexico State in 2008.

The Pirates’ victory was their first against a top-10 opponent since they knocked off then-No. 8 Pitt in early March 2006.

But for as much personal success that Gibbs had against the Pirates, part of Pitt’s loss falls on struggling to score on its 3-point field goals. As a team, the Panthers were 4 for 17 on long-range shots, and no player converted more than one attempt.

The Pirates weren’t any better, scoring on only two of their 13 attempts. But what Seton Hall failed to do in 3-point shots, it succeeded in points from within the arc — something the Panthers couldn’t do. Pitt finished the game with a 35.3 field goal percentage.

Seton Hall entered the game giving up roughly 79 points per game against conference opponents, but the Panthers couldn’t find any rhythm against the Pirates defense.

“We’re also a team that can win different ways,” Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez said. “It was the 80s the other night versus Louisville, and today it was the 60s. That’s a good sign that you are becoming a good team.”

On offense, the Panthers couldn’t move the ball early and turned the ball over 14 times by halftime. They cleaned up their play in the second half, giving it away only six times, but those late-game turnovers came at costly times.

With a little more than two minutes remaining in the game and Pitt trailing Seton Hall 60-54, Gibbs’ pass to Gary McGhee was intercepted by Robert Mitchell. The Pirates didn’t score from the turnover, but Panthers wasted time late in the game. Brad Wanamaker’s free throws with less than a minute and a half remaining cut the lead to four, 60-56.

And after Gibbs converted two more free throws with 37 seconds left in the game, putting the Panthers within three, 61-58, sloppy and aggressive play gave the Panthers an opportunity to tie the game after a Brad Wanamaker rebound. But seconds later, Wanamaker turned the ball over. The Pirates extended their lead back to four when Pope converted on the backend of two free throws.

Despite a Gilbert Brown 3, which cut the lead to one with 17 seconds to go, the Panthers couldn’t overcome their early-game and recent turnovers.

“We didn’t play well enough to win,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “Our execution, both offensively and defensively, wasn’t good enough to win. Our turnovers were too high. Those are things that are going to get you beat. We made bad decisions with the ball.”

The Panthers, who found some good news in out-rebounding the Pirates 33-23, couldn’t overcome Seton Hall’s athleticism and press. They trailed throughout most of the game — by as much as 11 points in the first half — and held their only lead of the second half after a Jermaine Dixon 3-point field goal with 18:08 to go.

The Pirates responded with a 9-0 run — their second such run of the game — due in part to Hope’s five points during the stretch, including a dunk after splitting two Panther defenders on an inbound pass with about 15 minutes left in the game.

The Panthers will have four days to forget about their back-to-back losses and focus on their next game against St. John’s (12-7, 2-5). Tip-off for the game against the Red Storm is set for Thursday at 7 p.m.

Notes: The Panthers’ 20 turnovers were the second highest of the season. They gave the ball away 21 times against Ohio on Dec. 22 … Gibbs set a career-high after converting all 14 of his free throw attempts. He set a school record earlier this season when he made 46 consecutive free throws … Dixon fell to 32-10 all-time in games played after losing the previous one.