ROSEMONT, Ill. -- How low can they go?
If Pitt's season is being measured by a limbo stick, the university would have to change its nickname from the Panthers to the Jellyfish. The Panthers are slinking back to Pittsburgh today after a humiliating, 84-81 loss Thursday night against DePaul at Allstate Arena.
It was the fourth consecutive loss for the Panthers, the first time they have lost four games in a row under coach Jamie Dixon. This one was an epic setback for a program that won the Big East Conference regular-season championship a year ago and has made 10 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
DePaul has been the laughingstock of the Big East. The Blue Demons had lost 53 of their previous 55 Big East games. They were 1-17 in conference play last season and entered the game last in the league in several statistical categories.
The end result was so improbable that long-suffering DePaul fans stormed the court after the game. The students might not have received the memo that Pitt is unranked and no longer can be considered among the elite teams in the Big East.
Heck, the folks at Allstate Arena could not get the name of the university correct. The public-address announcer introduced the visitors as Pittsburgh University. It probably was an honest mistake, but P.U. is a good way to describe the Panthers' play of late. They previously won a game five days before Christmas.
This latest loss came in inexplicable fashion.
Pitt held a four-point lead with 17.2 seconds remaining after John Johnson made two free throws.
DePaul sophomore Brandon Young drove the lane and scored on a layup with nine seconds remaining. Isaiah Epps, a seldom-used reserve guard who was in the game for his ability to make free throws, caught the inbounds pass and was fouled.
Epps, who had attempted one free throw this season, stepped to the line and missed both attempts.
Young got the ball after the miss and drove to the basket. He made another layup and was fouled by Ashton Gibbs with 1.2 seconds left. Young made the free throw for the winning margin, and two more after being fouled again with less than a second left on the clock.
"They spread us out, got us isolated and beat him on the drive," Dixon said. "I don't want to blame Ashton at this point. You can't focus on just one play in the game."
There was no explanation on why Gibbs fouled Young, and Gibbs refused an interview request after the game.
Young, who scored a game-high 26 points, was more than willing to gloat about his shot.
"I was surprised he fouled me," Young said. "But I guess he had no choice but to foul me. Either that, or let me lay it up."
Of course, there is no telling how the Panthers would have fared in overtime. The way it was going it likely was going to be a bad outcome for the snake-bitten Panthers who have lost three of four games in this skid by five points or fewer.
Senior forward Nasir Robinson said Gibbs was supposed to have help on that play, but his teammates were worried about DePaul's outside shooters who had made 10 of 22 3-point shots.
"We most definitely were supposed to be in the gap there," Robinson said. "But we were off because they were knocking down 3s."
Dixon took his post players out of the game after Young made his first layup with nine seconds left to cut the lead to two.
He wanted his best ball-handlers and foul-shooters on the floor, but Epps had to be the last option to receive the pass in that situation.
Gibbs is a career 88-percent foul shooter and Johnson is an 86-percent shooter from the line and had made two just nine seconds earlier.
"That's what we wanted to do," Dixon said of getting the ball into the hands of Gibbs. "But they denied him the ball. They knew we wanted to get it to him.
"We have to do a better job of working to get open. We wanted to get it to Ashton or John."
As for the decision to insert Epps, who had played just six minutes in the game and only one minute in the second half, Dixon said he had no second thoughts.
"We wanted our best ball-handlers and good free-throw shooters out there," he said.
"He's a good free-throw shooter. That's what went into the decision. He's a good ball-handler who hasn't turned it over, and we wanted our best free-throw shooters out there. Watching him play for a year and a half, we feel like he's one of our best free-throw shooters."
Epps is 0 for 3 from the line this season. Free-throw shooting was a problem for the entire gamefor the Panthers, who were 16 for 25 from the line. They could have put the game away much earlier had they knocked down some foul shots.
Playing its first game in two years as an unranked team, Pitt (11-5, 0-3) held a 12-point lead in the first half and a 10-point lead early in the second before frittering it away in the final 17 minutes.
The Panthers allowed DePaul to shoot 59 percent (19 fort 32) in the second half and made too many mistakes to count. In addition to the lack of execution in the final seconds, the Panthers allowed 22 points off 15 turnovers.
"This is a tough loss," Robinson said. "We played hard, but we just had a couple of turnovers there at the end."
NOTES -- Dixon shook up his starting lineup and started Talib Zanna and Johnson in place of Dante Taylor and Cameron Wright. ... Zanna responded with a team-high 16 points. ... Gibbs and Robinson scored 13 apiece and Johnson and Lamar Patterson each had 10.
Penn State will introduce Bill O'Brien as its new head football coach Saturday in University Park, Pa.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com First Published January 6, 2012 5:00 AM