Chances abound for Pitt this week in ACC tournament


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The final weekend of the regular season settled some important questions about, and for, Pitt. The Panthers likely cemented their status as an NCAA tournament team with an 83-78 overtime win Saturday at Clemson.

Coach Jamie Dixon said it was a "character" win and showed a lot about his team's toughness and ability to overcome adversity to win games.

But the hard work starts now for the Panthers (23-8, 11-7), who, despite likely being in the NCAA tournament field, need to build some momentum and prove they can beat a ranked opponent.

"This was a big win for us because we knew we needed to win a game down here," senior Lamar Patterson said. "But this is something we can hopefully build on, too. I think we have had some close games and tough losses, [so] to come out on the winning side of one of these feels really good. And I also think that we showed that we can be a really good team when we play the way we are capable."

Pitt is 1-6 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI and only 6-8 against teams in the top 100.

That's why the ACC tournament, which begins Wednesday at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., will be an important step for the Panthers as they prepare for the NCAAs.

Pitt clinched fifth place and the No. 5 seed in the league tournament and will play at 2 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 12 seed Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12) and No. 13 Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12).

A win Thursday won't do anything to improve the Panthers' lot in the NCAA tournament, as they have beaten both teams and neither is in the top 100 of the RPI, but it would give them the opportunity to play a ranked opponent and one that has beaten them.

If they win their first game, they would advance to the quarterfinals to play No. 4 seed North Carolina (23-8, 13-5).

The Tar Heels were ranked No. 14 in The Associated Press poll as of Sunday and are No. 18 in the RPI. They beat the Panthers, 75-71, Jan. 15 in Chapel Hill, N.C., so they would be a good win for Pitt's resume.

Looking ahead, the Panthers could have a potential semifinal against No. 1 seed Virginia (25-6, 16-2) and, if they make it to the championship, they could see either Duke (24-7, 13-5) or Syracuse (27-4, 14-4).

Pitt junior Cameron Wright said the big picture is not the focus for the Panthers at this point; they just want to build off the win against Clemson.

"You see us in the huddle, we're together, we fight for each other, we work hard together, we just keep working hard," Wright said. "When you have a big win like this, it is emotional and it feels great, but we know there are some bigger things out there. So we want to make sure we celebrate, but we have to get ready for the ACC tournament and our first game.

"I don't know if you can carry momentum from one game to the next, but the truth is we try to keep focused on the next game and that's what we will do this week."

Dixon said the one thing he expects in the ACC tournament is that many of the games will come down to the wire because that is the way the regular season was.

That's why winning close games -- and he points to Pitt's 4-0 record in overtime games as evidence that his team does well in that area -- will be a key to advancing. It's also why he isn't naïve enough to think there won't be some upsets and why Pitt won't overlook a team matter its record.

"I look at the scores of this league and it seems like there is more and more close games than other leagues," Dixon said. "I said that the other day when I looked at Clemson's games, for example, they won four out of five and every game was close.

"So it is just the way it has been, and a lot of people look at us, but if you look, everybody is playing close games. That's just something that we've seen in the ACC."


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

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