Pitt's mental toughness key to winning close games

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Pitt didn't play particularly well, especially offensively, last week against Miami and Virginia Tech and barely escaped both games with victories.

The Panthers failed to score 50 points in regulation in both games, struggled to rebound against Virginia Tech and failed to shoot 40 percent from the field in either game.

But one thing that has seemingly gotten lost in the postgame analysis is that Pitt found a way to win and is one of only 15 teams in the country with 20 victories, something the Panthers have achieved for 13 years in a row.

Coach Jamie Dixon said the Panthers win a lot of games many other teams might lose because they execute well under pressure, which speaks to their mental toughness.

"I think it was good to [grind out a few close wins]," he said. "One of the things about this team is we had so many wins by big margins, and especially early in conference play, and that's not normal. But I thought we played pretty good and did some good things offensively, we just didn't make some shots [in both games] and we had some other things going on.

"We didn't play as well as we can but [the opponent] had something to do with it, rebounding-wise, and we have to get that addressed. But for us, to play two close games and win was probably good for us.

"But it really comes down to great execution at the end of the game. That is what it was. We did the right things, we hit free throws, we executed, we defended and we came away with the wins."

To Dixon's point, the Panthers had opportunities to lose both games down the stretch but made enough plays to either extend the game into overtime or win -- be it good offense, free-throw shooting, a great defensive sequence or a 4-point play Saturday against the Hokies that tied the score when it looked as if the Panthers were going to lose.

Junior Cameron Wright added that the Panthers are mentally tough and that's a big reason -- even when they are down late in games and not playing well -- that they believe they can grind out a win.

"This game is as much mental as it is physical. And basketball is a game of perseverance, and I have faith in my team that we are going to persevere and find ways."

Pitt (20-4, 7-3 ACC) is 1-4 against teams ranked in the top 50 in the RPI but are 19-0 against teams ranked outside of the top 50, That means they don't lose to teams they are supposed to beat and that they have been incredibly good at avoiding bad losses.

That might not sound like a big deal, but Syracuse is the only other team in the ACC to avoid a bad loss, and teams across the country are upset almost every night.

For instance, Notre Dame has only three ACC wins and one of them is against Duke. Virginia, meanwhile, has losses to Green Bay and a 35-point blowout loss Tennessee, which is in the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference.

A few big wins would round out the Panthers' resume, but Dixon said it is not easy to win regardless who the opponent is.

The Panthers generally win with defense and rebounding, but an ankle injury has slowed Talib Zanna, and that has been reflected in the rebounding numbers.

"We are rebounding well enough but Talib is not where he needs to be and maybe I need to play the other big guys more, too.

"We have to do some things better, but there is no question, if you look at it, teams lose and that's one of the reasons we are one of the few teams in the country with 20 wins."

While wins against lesser opponents aren't always celebrated, they are necessary to win a conference title and to get a spot in the NCAA tournament.

"We did win, and while we are higher than those two teams in the standings, a win is not a given," Dixon said. "And it is why we are generally at the top of the league every year, because we don't lose games like that and you can't. I always say if you want to win your league you have to win all your home games and we haven't done that, and that is why we aren't at the top of the league."

The Panthers will get another opportunity against a top team Wednesday when they play host to No. 1 Syracuse (23-0, 10-0).

The two teams met Jan. 18 at the Carrier Dome and the Orange won, 59-54. Unlike their past two games, the Panthers didn't execute well down the stretch at Syracuse.

"We had an opportunity, we thought, to win that game because we did rebound and defend well," Dixon said. "But we didn't make enough plays to win, and that is something we have generally done at the end of games."

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

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