Pitt’s NCAA run ends following dominant decade

Pittsburgh’s rocky season will end in a postseason tournament

that will almost certainly start close to home. Just not the one

the Panthers envisioned when the season began.

A lethargic 64-52 loss to Georgetown in the second round of the

Big East tournament on Wednesday ended Pitt’s improbable hopes of

making the NCAAs for an 11th straight season, meaning they’ll have

to buy a ticket if they want to watch the second and third round

games at Consol Energy Center next week.

Injuries, dismal shooting and sometimes uninspired play means

the Panthers (17-16) will likely head to the NIT for the first time

since 2001. The school has put in a bid to host an opening round

game, though it will likely do little to ease the sting of the

program’s worst season in more than a decade.

”Obviously, we knew we had to win this tournament here, and

obviously, it’s been a nice streak and something that I guess only

a few schools have done more,” coach Jamie Dixon said.

The last time Pitt played in the NIT was 2001, a season the

Panthers used as a springboard to Big East dominance. Even with a

woeful 5-13 conference mark this season, Pitt has the conference’s

best record over the last decade.

Though the players talked extensively about the fear of being on

a team that saw the postseason streak snapped, the Panthers were

never able to really put it together after point guard Tray Woodall

went down with a groin/abdominal injury against Duquesne on Nov.

30.

While Woodall was able to key a brief four-game winning streak

in late January, the Panthers never really recovered from his

absence and the departure of freshman center Khem Birch, who left

the team in mid-December to transfer to UNLV.

Forced to constantly tinker with his lineup and unable to get

consistent production out of junior center Dante Taylor, Pitt

hardly looked like the defending Big East champions. Once

unbeatable at Petersen Events Center, the Panthers lost at home

seven times, including crushing defeats at the hands of Wagner,

Rutgers and South Florida.

”Yeah, it’s tough,” senior forward Nasir Robinson said. ”I

mean, obviously this is the first time in our lives we’ve gone

through this situation. We’re just going to finish off strong, NIT

or whatever, we’re just going to finish off strong and keep

fighting.”

Something the Panthers failed to do at times as the losses piled

up. Their exit from Madison Square Garden on Wednesday looked an

awful lot like the 15 defeats that came before.

Pitt played well at times, then went cold and didn’t have an

answer defensively against the bigger, more talented Hoyas.

”I just thought we would play better,” Dixon said.

He thought that all season. It only happened sporadically and

didn’t really happen at all when Dixon moved preseason Big East

Player of the Year Ashton Gibbs to point after Woodall went

down.

A gifted shooter, Gibbs struggled running Pitt’s offense and

with their best player misfiring – he shot a career-worst 38

percent from the floor – the rest of the Panthers failed to make up

the difference.

More jarring than the team’s offensive issues were the problems

on the other end of the floor. Long one of the Big East’s most

physical teams, Pitt let opponents shoot 45 percent from the floor

and averaged just 2.2 blocks per game, worst in the league.

The NIT offers a chance at redemption, though only if the

Panthers can put their disappointing regular season behind

them.

”Yeah, I’ll play NIT,” Gibbs said. ”It’s basketball at the

end of the day. That’s what we came to college for is to play

basketball. Just wherever we can play, we’re definitely going to

play our hardest.”