Losing close games a recent epidemic for Panthers

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When Pitt was winning more games than any other team in the Big East Conference in the past decade, winning conference championships and going to NCAA tournaments, the Panthers were never a team that won big against opponents with much regularity. Coach Jamie Dixon's teams amassed impressive records because they always found ways to win close games.

Dixon's teams of recent vintage are the complete opposite. Now, when games are within reach in the final minutes, the Panthers are finding ways to lose.

That toughness, resolve and clutch play that led to so many victories in seasons past has been replaced by end-of-game mistakes, poor decision-making and an inability to come up with game-changing plays in crucial situations.

"In these losses it seems like whenever we need a big play we just didn't come up with it," junior forward Lamar Patterson said.

Pitt (13-4) is 1-3 in conference play and in danger of quickly falling out of contention in the conference for a second consecutive season. What's most disconcerting for the Panthers is they had opportunities to win all three games.

• Against Cincinnati Dec. 31 at home in the Big East opener, Tray Woodall stepped to the free-throw line with 1:27 remaining with Pitt down three. He could have sliced the lead to one, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Bearcats closed the game out from the free-throw line.

• Against Rutgers Jan. 5, Pitt twice cut the lead to two in the final 4:23, but failed to get over the hump. After the Panthers cut the lead to two the first time they gave up an offensive rebound and a layup. The next time they got within striking distance they fired two 3-point attempts even though more than two minutes remained on the clock.

• In the most recent loss Saturday to Marquette at home, the Panthers fought back to force overtime, but they committed an offensive foul on their first possession and then proceeded to settle for outside shots as Marquette was marching to the free-throw line and making 13 of 16 attempts to win the game.

"We battled back, got it to overtime and then you have to come out and play and make right decisions," Dixon said. "I didn't think we did a good job of getting good shots in that overtime and dug us another hole."

Marquette missed its first shot in overtime, but Golden Eagles guard Vander Blue then made two free throws after getting fouled for a two-point lead. After Pitt's Trey Zeigler missed a jumper, Blue missed a layup, but grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled. He made two more free throws.

"When we need a stop we have to get a stop," Patterson said. "When we need a rebound we have to get a rebound. It'll change. We've been working on it in practice. We just have to continue to work."

The difference between first place and 12th place -- at least at this juncture of the season -- isn't much. Marquette (12-3) improved to 3-0 and remained one of three undefeated teams in the conference. Two of Marquette's victories came in overtime and the other was a one-point win.

"No. 1, we're not very good," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That's why they're close games. When you don't have much of a margin you begin to become accustomed to 'this is what it's going to be when we compete.' I do think our team has grown over the last 2 1/2 or 3 weeks. Obviously, it helps when you have success."

Pitt hasn't had a lot of success this season or a year ago. The Panthers have lost 17 of their past 23 Big East games and there is a growing sense of urgency for some quick improvement before they travel to Villanova (11-5, 2-1) Wednesday for their next game.

"We have to grow up quickly and figure out a way to get it done," Dixon said.

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @rayfitt1.


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