The Pitt Panthers ended 2012 the same way they started it -- with a home loss to Cincinnati. Now coach Jamie Dixon can only hope the next three months don't mirror what happened to his team after loss exactly a year ago today to the Bearcats.
For the second consecutive season Cincinnati celebrated the New Year with a victory at Petersen Events Center. The 70-61 victory came 364 days after triumph on New Year's Day that sent the Panthers spiraling toward their worst Big East Conference finish in more than a decade.
There remains hope that this season will be much different -- Cincinnati is the No. 14 team in the country and a legitimate contender for the conference championship -- but the loss Monday certainly looked a lot like many of those disheartening ones from last season.
The Panthers got pushed around on their home court, failed to come up with many game-changing plays on offense or defense after halftime and came up short in the clutch department when a late opportunity arose.
Cincinnati outscored Pitt, 44-27, after halftime and won the rebounding battle by nine after the intermission. After months of talking about being a tougher team the Panthers got steamrollered by a more physical opponent in their building.
"They got after it," junior forward Lamar Patterson said. "We didn't come out the way we should have. I'm not going to doubt our toughness, but I felt like they were the tougher team [Monday]."
Cincinnati won the rebounding battle, 37-32, and grabbed 14 offensive boards. The Bearcats only converted those into 14 points, but the extra possessions proved to be the difference, especially in one late sequence when they played keep-away for almost two minutes that kept Pitt from getting possession when it was down five.
Backup center David Nyarsuk grabbed both offensive rebounds on the possession and finished it off with a dunk that gave the Bearcats an insurmountable seven-point lead with 1:39 remaining.
"We simply didn't get it done when we had to," Dixon said. "I don't know how you can get outrebounded by nine in the second half in a low-possession game. That's a big number."
Rebounding wasn't the only problem for the Panthers in the second half. After shooting 29 percent in the first half, Cincinnati shredded Pitt's defense in the second half by making 13 of 24 shots (54 percent) from the field.
Cashmere Wright scored 12 of his game-high 18 points after halftime and Sean Kilpatrick scored 12 of his 16 after the intermission as the Panthers failed to contain Cincinnati's talented guard duo in one-on-one situations.
"Once we slowed down and got the matchup and spacing we wanted, we tried to attack more one-on-one than with set plays," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "They're the best at defending set offenses. They crowd the paint. They help on every screen. They're so fundamentally sound with that. We slowed down and got the right spacing. Everyone says, well, they go one-on-one a lot. Well, we practice that and we recruit to that. That's how we want to play."
Pitt's offense bogged down in the second half, too. After shooting 48 percent in the first half, the Panthers shot 41 percent in the second half. The transition baskets that helped the Panthers get a 34-26 halftime lead dried up after halftime and the half-court offense was ineffective.
The Panthers failed to make a 3-pointer for the first time since a 2009 Big East tournament loss to West Virginia. They were 0 for 10 from 3-point range and ended a streak of 124 consecutive games with at least one 3-point field goal.
"In a game like that we could have played a little more," Pitt senior guard Tray Woodall said. "It was time to go out there and play basketball instead of running a lot of sets. We got into our offense late like they wanted us to do. We should have played a little more on-on-one or attacked it more instead of running our offense."
Even with the inept second-half offense, the Panthers tried to make it interesting. After Nyarsuk's dunk made it 62-55, Talib Zanna, who led the Panthers with 16 points, scored and was fouled at the other end. He missed his free throw, but Lamar Patterson rebounded and laid in a bucket to make it 62-59 with 1:33 remaining.
Woodall then forced a turnover off the inbounds play and was fouled. But Woodall missed the front end of his one-and-one, and the Bearcats closed the game out from the free-throw line.
Woodall finished with nine points but only had two after halftime. Backcourt mate James Robinson also scored just two points after halftime.
Wright said the constant pressure the Bearcats used took a toll on Pitt's players in the second half.
"The first 30 minutes we're going to try to wear you out as much as we can," Wright said. "The last 10 minutes we want you to be as tired as possible so you can't make those same decisions and free throws and shots that you made at the beginning of the game.
"We just keep pushing and keep grinding. Most teams don't play how we play. Most teams, sooner or later, will get tired, will start making bad decisions and their shots will stop falling."
That rang true, and for the second consecutive year, the Bearcats rang in the New Year with a victory on Pitt's home court.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @rayfitt1.