Panthers have a key stretch of games to define ACC standing

PITT MEN


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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Pitt's 59-54 loss Saturday to Syracuse at Carrier Dome not only knocked the Panthers out of first place in the ACC, it raised the stakes for the Panthers in their next four games.

The Panthers' season likely will be defined by how they fare in these next four games that are against four teams which most likely will be fighting for the top seeds in the ACC tournament.

That stretch starts Tuesday when the Panthers (16-2, 4-1) play host to Clemson (13-4, 4-1). The Tigers are tied with Pitt and Virginia (13-5, 4-1) for second place in the conference.

After that game, the Panthers will play a tough road game Saturday at Maryland (11-7, 3-2), a team picked by some to finish in the top six in the ACC and a team that has been much better at home than on the road.

The Panthers then come home for back-to-back home games against two teams that were among a short list of favorites coming into the season -- Duke (Jan. 27) and Virginia (Feb. 2).

At that point, the Panthers will be halfway through their ACC schedule and will have a good idea of exactly where they stand in the conference.

But that is getting ahead of things and that hasn't been the style of the Panthers, who have gotten to this point by focusing on one game, the next game, and not looking ahead.

And they also have done a good job of moving beyond the previous game, which is a process they began to do almost as soon as the final buzzer sounded after their loss to the Orange.

"We just can't let this one get us down," junior Cameron Wright said. "We know we didn't play our best game, we know we could have done some things better, but it is over now so no use dwelling on it, we have some big games coming up.

"We just have to learn from it, make the corrections and move on."

Lamar Patterson added, "It is frustrating because we felt like we should have won this game but we didn't and so the best thing for us to do is forget about it and move ahead. It is only one loss, it counts as one, so now we get back at it and go try to get the next one."

Pitt's ability to move on and not look ahead has been a big part of its success this season. It is something that Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said speaks to the maturity and leadership of the veteran players such as Wright and Patterson.

Dixon said that is why he wasn't worried about the Panthers looking past Georgia Tech Tuesday to their big game against Syracuse, and it is also why he is confident they won't let the loss to the Orange linger beyond Saturday.

"I thought the rebounding numbers in this game showed our toughness," Dixon said. "And I think there are some things that we learned from this game, I think there is no question about it and I think this is something that will make us better.

"As I told the guys, this is one loss to a good team at their place and we had every opportunity to win. I was impressed with our effort, but we simply didn't get it done. Again, we have to learn from some things."

The two lessons the Panthers learned Saturday are simple -- offensive possessions and free throws are important in close games.

The Panthers failed to score a field goal in the final 5:59 of the game and scored only four points in that span -- all on free throws. That is why they weren't able to capitalize on a small lead and build on it, missing too many opportunities and shots down the stretch.

Also, Pitt, which at one point was on pace to set a school record for free-throw percentage, was just 13 of 23 from the line (56.5 percent), leaving a lot of points on the court in a close game.

Patterson said those things are definitely not typical of the Panthers and are things they need to and will do better.

"We just didn't get it done. We were being aggressive and we just couldn't get it to fall for us," he said. "That is just something that happens. [Free-throw shooting] definitely hurt us as well when it came right down to it at the end. We have to make them. We just have to do a little better job at some of these things."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 or Twitter @paulzeise.


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