Next challenge for Pitt: Red-hot North Carolina

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Pitt lost in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday night to Syracuse, but the Panthers have had little time to feel sorry for themselves.

That’s because they must visit red-hot North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N. C., this afternoon.

This was the message Pitt coach Jamie Dixon sent to his players immediately after the loss against the Orange and since has reinforced.

“We did what [Pitt needed to do to win against Syracuse] and they hit a shot against us,” Dixon said in reference to Tyler Ennis’ buzzer-beating, 3-pointer.

“Regardless of the outcome, the game cannot stick with us. Obviously, it hurts, and there is a lot of talk about it, but that’s about it. We need to get ready for Saturday and go out and play better.”

Center Talib Zanna added: “We just need to move on and get ready for Saturday. [Dixon] just told us keep our heads up, don’t be down and come ready for practice to get ready for Saturday.”

Saturday, of course, is here, and Pitt (20-5, 8-4 ACC) will play the Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4) at the Dean Smith Center.

And, as tough as things were against top-ranked and undefeated Syracuse, that game might have been the easier of the two.

After being very inconsistent early in the season, the Tar Heels seemingly have hit their stride. They have won six of their past seven games while climbing back to the cusp of the rankings.

Furthermore, they own some good non-conference wins, likely have forged their way back into being a lock for the NCAA tournament and are pushing to become a contender for the ACC regular-season title.

North Carolina not only will enter the game with more momentum than the Panthers, who have lost three of their past five, they will be well-rested and healthier.

Pitt might be running on fumes after the grueling game Wednesday night and because two key players — Lamar Patterson (thumb) and Talib Zanna (ankle) —are injured and need rest.

This will be the Panthers’ fourth game and second road trip in a 10-day span, but the much-needed rest is around the corner. After this game, they will get eight days off before they play Florida State at home Feb. 23.

Zanna did not practice Thursday because of his ankle injury. Part of the problem of the Panthers is that they have not had a healthy enough roster to run good practices over the past three weeks.

On the flip side, North Carolina hasn’t played a game in a week, and this is will be only its second game in the past 10 days. The Tar Heels were scheduled to face their biggest rival, Duke, Wednesday night, but the game was postponed to Feb. 20 because of a snowstorm that hit the South.

The Tar Heels, like Syracuse, are led by an excellent point guard. Marcus Paige not only is the leader, but he also is the leading scorer and most dangerous offensive player with his penetration and passing skills.

He is excellent at beating players off the dribble and fits the profile of the high-scoring, quick guards that troubled Pitt this season. Paige averages 17 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game.

Paige said his motivation comes from North Carolina’s tradition and his burning desire to be one of the nation’s finest point guards.

“I try to model my game after Chris Paul,” Paige told the publication Carolina. “He’s a little bit better than me, obviously, but I just like the way he has an all-around game. He scores, passes and defends and he’s sort of my role model, So, I just try to play like him.”

The Tar Heels have three other players who average double figures in James McAdoo (15 points, 6.8 rebounds per game), Leslie McDonald (10.9 ppg) and Brice Johnson (10.1 ppg).

The tall Tar Heels lead the ACC in offensive rebounding (15.5 per game), defensive rebounding (25.4) and rebounding margin (6.2).

That likely presents a major challenge for Pitt, which has not rebounded well in recent games except for the one against Syracuse.

The Tar Heels are not good shooting from the outside (31. 9 percent) and are terrible at the free-throw line (62.4).

Meanwhile, in an attempt to create a better game atmosphere, the North Carolina athletic department has called for a “stripeout” as opposed to the traditional “whiteout” or “blueout” among fans. Each seat will have a T-shirt for fans to wear, and they will alternate white and blue so the stands look “striped” on TV.

Paul Zeise:, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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