Their shoulders slumped and emotionless stares on their faces, Pitt players walked listlessly to the bench in disbelief during a timeout Monday night against Notre Dame.
This might have been understandable had it occurred late in the game after the Fighting Irish completed their improbable comeback, but the scene took place in the first half when the Panthers still had a lead.
They became even more lifeless as the game progressed when they realized they did not have the answers to stop the slide that led to one of the more deflating defeats of Jamie Dixon's tenure as head coach.
The 51-42 loss left many wondering about the emotional state of the team as the postseason approaches.
"We didn't play like ourselves," senior guard and team captain Tray Woodall said afterward. "We didn't play together. We just have to throw this game out, get after it and starting playing like ourselves again."
Whether there are any lasting effects from the discouraging loss won't be known for another five days. The Panthers (20-7, 8-6 Big East) play St. John's Sunday at Madison Square Garden in New York, where they will try to snap a two-game losing streak and right a ship that veered off course after seven wins in eight games.
Both losses were to ranked teams, but there were some troubling patterns that developed against Marquette and Notre Dame. The Panthers were dominated on the boards in each game. Notre Dame enjoyed a plus-15 rebound margin and Marquette a nine-rebound edge.
The Panthers have been outrebounded in six of their seven losses and have won only twice when getting beat on the boards, against Howard and Cincinnati. The only game Pitt lost with a rebounding edge was at Louisville.
Lamar Patterson described what took place Saturday at Marquette as the Golden Eagles "wanting it more." On Monday, reserve center Dante Taylor talked of the Panthers failing to "man up."
"It's just getting after it from the beginning when it comes to rebounding," Taylor said. "Even though we were scoring, we never took control of the game as far as rebounding. We never manned up and tried to keep them off the glass. They just kept with it. We knew their shots would eventually fall and that is what happened. We just let it get away from us and that doesn't usually happen with this team."
Dixon's team relies on rebounding at both ends of the floor. He expects his defense to force a bad shot and post players to limit opponents to one shot per possession. He also expects offensive rebounding to contribute to the scoring.
The lack of production from Pitt's starting frontcourt is getting hard to ignore. The Panthers managed to win games without much low-post production a few weeks ago, but that formula is proving difficult to sustain.
Power forward Talib Zanna is mired in a weekslong slump. He did not make a basket against Notre Dame and scored four points. He scored in double figures just once in the past 11 games and scored four points or fewer seven times in that span.
"It's something we're well aware of," Dixon said. "He was getting big numbers for us early. He's still going to the glass and playing hard. He doesn't have that same rhythm. It's not for a lack of effort. He's playing hard in practice and in games."
Freshman center Steven Adams has played better recently but has reached double figures just once in 14 Big East games. Adams leads the team in offensive rebounds but, like Zanna, is not converting them into points.
A team with high-scoring guards and small forwards might be able to overcome ineffective post play, but the Panthers do not have such players. Woodall is the leading scorer at 10.9 points per game. Patterson appeared ready to assume a bigger scoring role after leading the team in that department in five of the eight games before Notre Dame. But he scored two points against the Irish and was hesitant to pull the trigger on some open 3-pointers, which is hard to figure because he was 4 for 7 from 3-point range against Marquette.
Dixon was able to steer the Panthers back on course after they lost three of their first four Big East games. The surge that followed put them in great position to get back to the NCAA tournament.
Their standing remains strong. Two victories in the final four games likely assures a berth in the NCAA field, but their seeding will be much better if they can find a way to win three or all four remaining games before the Big East tournament.
"We just have to play better," Dixon said. "We haven't played well and obviously we're a team that put up good numbers offensively and defensively. We haven't in the last two games. We've got to get something done in practice at this point and understand that because that's where we're going to get it changed. We've got to get back to getting it done in practice with our effort and our execution and our communication."
• Game: No. 20 Pitt (20-7, 8-6 Big East) at St. John's (15-10, 7-6), Madison Square Garden, New York.
• When: Noon Sunday.
• TV: Root Sports.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 20, 2013 5:00 AM