March Madness: Panthers prove NCAA Tournament worthiness in Greensboro


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

The Pitt Panthers arrived in Greensboro, N.C., without certainty that their game(s) played in the ACC Tournament would be the last meaningful ones of the season. In Pitt’s first year participating in the 61-year-old event, the Panthers knocked off two teams local to the area and secured their bid to this weekend’s NCAA Tournament. 

As a team on the bubble of participating in March Madness the next weekend, the Panthers wanted to show their worth with one last chance to convince the Selection Committee for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“We just wanted to make a statement to all the people who doubted us,” center Talib Zanna said. “We can make it to the NCAA Tournament, we can beat ranked teams.” 

After a first-round bye, Pitt came out and hit head coach Jeff Bzdelik’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the mouth with a 29-point victory Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum. On Friday, the fifth-seeded Panthers upset the fourth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels — a program deeply ingrained in the illustrious fabric of ACC history. 

But ACC regular-season champion Virginia sent the Panthers back to Pittsburgh with a three-point win in the semifinals Saturday. 

Pitt (25-9) made its statement, though, and secured a bid to its 12th NCAA Tournament in the last 13 years. No player embodied that achievement more so than Zanna, who averaged 17 points and 13 rebounds in his three games at the conference tournament. 

In the win against No. 15 North Carolina, the Panthers finally got their victory over a ranked team after coming so close against the Tar Heels, Virginia and Syracuse twice during the regular season. The inability to win those games against tough competition was yet another factor driving Zanna’s play over the weekend.

“We made a statement today,” Zanna said Friday. “We take that as a motivation just to show people what we can do.”

Even head coach Jamie Dixon, who is normally nonplussed by the regalia of any opponent, gave a little credence to the importance of defeating the Tar Heels. 

“When you beat North Carolina in North Carolina, there’s just, from the messages I got from people in the league, there’s something to it,” Dixon said. “I guess it doesn’t happen often, so that’s something.” 

At the same measure, Dixon says, “In no way are we satisfied with getting to the semifinals.”

“We knew to get to the championship you’re going to have to beat quality teams, and we beat two quality teams,” Dixon said. “But we didn’t get it done against the third.” 

A major factor in Pitt’s run to becoming one of the league’s final four teams playing in Greensboro was the health of Zanna and redshirt senior forward Lamar Patterson, who respectively dealt with an ankle and hand injury late in the season.

A healthy Zanna was most noticeable, as he decimated North Carolina’s frontcourt to the tune of 19 points and 21 rebounds before fouling out after 34 minutes of play. Patterson also scored 17 points per game, and his shot showed a healthier stroke as he shot 46.1 percent from the field and knocked down 54.5 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. 

“Everyone is healthy, everyone is ready to go,” Patterson said after scoring 24 points on Thursday. “We’re dialed in. Today was just a sign of that.”

Dixon concurred at the end of the tournament. 

“We’re playing our best basketball, and we’re healthy,” Dixon said. 

With the experience of the ACC Tournament under Pitt’s belt, sophomore point guard James Robinson thinks the Panthers improved over the course of the three games in Greensboro, though that wasn’t the ultimate goal of the trip. 

“We definitely came here to win a championship, so we fell short in that aspect of it,” Robinson said. “But we got better, definitely some good things that came out of it.”

One thing Dixon became aware of was a weakness “guarding the dribble.” Among others, the experience plays into helping him prepare Pitt for the NCAA Tournament.

“As I told our guys, this is all about getting ready for next week,” Dixon said. “It’s gotta prepare us and make us better and recognize what our deficiencies were.”