Pitt looks to build momentum Saturday against Georgia Tech

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Pitt looks to build momentum Saturday against Georgia Tech

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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Aron Phillips-Nwankwo might have known that his opportunity was coming on Wednesday night. His head coach had, after all, hinted at it earlier in the week.

After a few big plays during Wednesday night’s 73-64 win over Florida State, the senior walk-on could have predicted the spark he would provide his Pitt men’s basketball team.

“In practice, I’m the guy that plays hard, brings the energy, plays defense,” Phillips-Nwankwo said. “So I planned on, if I got in, doing the same thing. A few plays went my way, so it was good for us.”

Now, three days later, the rest of the Panthers prepare for another home contest, this time against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (9-7, 0-4 ACC).

Much of the team’s success in its last game came from winning the rebounding battle. Despite Florida State boasting three players who were more than seven feet tall, Pitt (12-5, 2-2 ACC) out-rebounded the Seminoles 39-31.

Much of that effort came from sophomore forward Michael Young, who scored 16 points and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds.

“In the last few practices … we brought the box-out drill back,” Young said. “We got out-rebounded by 17 [against Clemson], that’s an embarrassment. That’s an attack on everybody’s pride.”

Young knew that much of the rebounding burden fell on his shoulders, both in the win Wednesday and the loss before that.

“It was all on me,” he said. “I didn’t do enough [against Clemson]. I felt like I didn’t come out ready to play.”

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said he noticed an improvement in Young’s play around the basket but added that rebounding is a team effort.

“We took good shots, so it gave us an opportunity to get rebounds,” Dixon said. “Mike played well defensively. We really tried to get the message across the last two days, and I thought the guys responded. We’ve got some guys having to play differently than they’ve played before, and that’s the adjustment and growth that they’ve got to make.”

The Panthers will take that added emphasis on rebounding to the court again on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets’ tallest player is the 6-foot-10 freshman center Ben Lammers, but the team’s leading rebounder is junior forward Charles Mitchell, who averages 7.9 per game. As a team, Georgia Tech ranks 31st in the country with 39.1 rebounds per game.

The visitors have lost their first four ACC games. However,one was a double-overtime loss against No. 14 Notre Dame on Jan. 3, and the largest margin of defeat in that span was seven points.

Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory said the team must maintain its focus despite a recent inability to win close games.

“It’s frustrating. No doubt about it,” Gregory said. “At the same time, you have to keep battling through and know that you have done a lot of good things, but not enough of them or not at the critical times.”

Junior forward Marcus Georges-Hunt, who averages 12.9 points per game, leads the Yellow Jackets. In the team’s last win — a 67-66 victory over Charlotte on Dec. 30 — Georges-Hunt paced the team with 25 points.

Georgia Tech may see a number of different defensive schemes from the Panthers on Saturday — Dixon switched up his defensive formations several times against Florida State.

“I had to change up things in the first half and kind of get them out of a rhythm with the zone and press a little bit,” said Dixon, who earned his 300th career win on Wednesday night. “We battled through it.”

Dixon was also quick to praise Phillips-Nwankwo, who finished with seven points and two rebounds in 12 minutes.

“Aron was terrific for us,” he said. “I figured he’d give us energy, but I don’t know if I could predict he’d play that well … No kid has worked harder, no kid has improved more in college basketball than he has in five years.”

Phillips-Nwankwo may again see court time against Georgia Tech after he took advantage of his minutes on Wednesday. The redshirt senior and the rest of his Pitt team take the court at 4 p.m. on Saturday.


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