Improvements by freshmen a silver lining for Pitt

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Pitt's loss to North Carolina Saturday was yet another chapter in the Panthers' book of "2014 missed opportunities" -- another one of those games they had a chance to win, but lost because they didn't make enough plays.

The Tar Heels won, 75-71, but Pitt could have tied the score to likely send the game to overtime with a late 3-pointer by Lamar Patterson that missed. But the Panthers also missed a number of shots around the rim and turned the ball over too many times to win the game.

But there were some positive developments to come out of the game, specifically the play of the four freshmen who all contributed significantly and showed their continued progress.

That starts with Chris Jones, who had his best game, at least offensively, in that he was far more aggressive than any game this season.

Jones only scored five points, but had two key drives to the basket (one resulted in a charge), hit a 3-pointer and played 21 minutes off the bench as starters Patterson and Cameron Wright had to sit for long stretches due to foul trouble.

And while Jones has struggled shooting -- or been hesitant to shoot -- it has been mostly because his thumb is injured and will require postseason surgery.

"I always felt he could be a productive player for us, but he has had the thumb, which has affected his shooting," Dixon said. "I told him it shouldn't affect his shooting and how he does other things. He will have surgery after the year but I told him he has to fight through it now and do other things besides shooting; just rebound and defend for us.

"It is a tough break, but it is what it is."

The Panthers also got another great effort from Jamel Artis, who had career highs in points (13) and rebounds (7), and made some big plays down the stretch.

Perhaps his most important play came with 3:30 left when he rebounded a missed 3-pointer by James Robinson and put it back in to pull the Panthers to within three.

Artis, who played 20 minutes, also made two free throws to pull the Panthers within 74-71 with 23 seconds to play and that enabled them to have the last gasp by Patterson to tie.

The two other freshmen, Josh Newkirk and Michael Young, continued to give the Panthers what they have all year in terms of production and big plays.

"It was really good to see. I thought they all played very well," Dixon said of his freshmen. "We got really good production out of the four spot [Young and Artis], which is interesting because we had a stretch where they were doing well but maybe not as productive.

"I thought Jamel was really good and the rebounding numbers for them really stand out. We got 13 rebounds out of those two guys and that's encouraging."

Newkirk picked the pocket of North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige and turned it into a transition dunk that ignited a Panthers run late in the game when it looked like the Tar Heels were pulling away.

He played 18 minutes and had only two points and two assists, but his defense on Paige when the Panthers went man-to-man late was a huge factor in their ability to get stops and make a run.

"Josh played really good when we talk about him defensively," Dixon said. "At the beginning of the year, we thought his defense was a bit of a liability and now we think he is really a sound defender for us -- a good defender, someone we can put on guys now and that is really a dramatic improvement."

And Young, who starts, played 19 minutes, had eight points and six rebounds, and made some big shots to keep the Panthers in the game.

Young and Artis share the power forward spot and, as Dixon pointed out, combined for 21 points and 13 rebounds, which is the kind of production the Panthers will need from that spot if they want to get to where they want to go in the postseason.

However, because the four freshmen have had to play such prominent roles this year and have improved so much since the start of the season, Pitt fans should have a lot of hope and reason for optimism for the future of the program.

The Panthers (20-6, 8-5 ACC) now have a week to try to fix some of those little things that have held them back in recent weeks. They don't play again until Sunday when they host Florida State.

"We're not executing well enough, we're not finishing around the rim and we need to shoot a higher percentage," Dixon said of Pitt's 26-of-64 shooting from the field Saturday. "We're not shooting the ball well, but I think it is a shot selection issue. We're out of rhythm just because of guys not playing a lot or practicing a lot or being injured.

"We've got [six] days to get ready and we can't let that hinder us."

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

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