Pitt playing today for seeding in ACC tournament

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The best overall game Pitt played this year might have been Jan. 21 in a 76-43 victory against Clemson that pushed its record to 5-1 is the ACC.

Pitt shot 56.3 percent from the field, was 8 of 15 from 3-point range, made 14 of 18 from the free-throw line and held the Tigers to 32 percent shooting from the field.

Pitt also outrebounded the Tigers, 33-28, and held star forward K.J. McDaniels to 11 points, six below his average.

But that was at a time when the Panthers were playing well, and it took place at Petersen Events Center where they have usually been very good, though they have lost five of six games there since.

Pitt (22-8, 10-7) followed that game with an impressive offensive performance in a win at Maryland, but that’s when things got tough. The Panthers have struggled ever since.

Clemson (19-10, 10-7), meanwhile, rebounded from that loss and has quietly put together a nice season, including four wins in its past five games.

The two teams headed in different directions will meet again today in the regular-season finale for both, and needless to say there is a lot on the line.

The winner will take fifth place in the ACC and strengthen its case to be the fifth team from the ACC to get into the NCAA tournament.

Pitt junior Cameron Wright said he knows the Tigers are playing much better now than they were earlier in the season, but he thinks most teams are because the end of the season creates a sense of urgency.

“Everybody is playing better right now,” Wright said. “The teams that know they aren’t going to play again are playing their hearts out and the teams that are preparing for the NCAA tournament are playing their hearts out, as well. We still have to approach every game the same way and be prepared for each game.

“They have a good wing, McDaniels, he is very athletic. Their bigs are very aggressive, they play with a lot of tenacity. Clemson is a team that I like watching on television when they are on.”

Coach Jamie Dixon said the first game between the teams is not very relevant now, and that it is tough to take much from it in terms of strategy because the Panthers quickly jumped out to a big lead on the Tigers.

“We have to play well for 40 minutes,” Dixon said. “But there is not too much we can [use from the previous Clemson game]. We have to understand that we got off to a good start and then things just sort of fell our way.

“We got a couple of loose balls, turned them into 3-pointers for us and that is just how things go sometimes. But that is a long time ago. As I made it clear to our guys, that has very little impact on the game that we are going to play [today].”

Clemson is led by McDaniels, who averages 16.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and has 82 blocked shots.

He is the only player who averages double figures in scoring for the Tigers, and mostly because they are a defensive-oriented team that averages just 62.7 points.

But they allow only 56.7 points per game, and teams only shoot .393 from the field and .277 from 3-point range against them.

“Defensively, I was very concerned about them,” Dixon said. “Their defensive philosophy and fundamentals and how sound they are in what they do and their defensive numbers — that was what stood out the most to me.

“And also their ability to shoot the 3-pointer from different spots is a concern, though it didn’t come in our game, and of course K.J. McDaniels is a big concern. But if you remember, he got in foul trouble early — he had two in the first half and didn’t play the rest of the half, and that was a factor.”

The winner today will be the fifth seed in the ACC tournament, which starts Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C. That means the winner will play its first-round game at 2 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the No. 12- No. 13 game the day before.

If Pitt loses and falls to the No. 6 seed, the Panthers will play at 9 p.m. Thursday against the No. 11 or No. 14 seed.

If Pitt loses today and Florida State beats Syracuse Sunday, the Panthers will be the seventh seed and play at 7 p.m. Thursday against No. 10 or No. 15.

“We all know what is at stake, we know it won’t be easy,” Wright said. “But I have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates that we can take care of what we need to take care of.”

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

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