Panthers battled elements

First ACC season produces 26 wins, NCAA berth despite some rough stretches

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The toughest part of losing to Florida for Pitt senior Lamar Patterson beyond the fact that it marked the end of his career is that he will no longer get to call Talib Zanna a teammate.

Patterson and Zanna came to the Panthers five years ago, both redshirted, and both have grown by leaps and bounds over the years together.

"Talib is a brother to me," Patterson said. "I couldn't ask for a better person to spend five years with. He worked hard, he improved over the course of his career and it showed out on the court. Our career, it was long. I just appreciate everything I had at Pittsburgh."

Patterson and Zanna may not like the way their careers -- or this season ---- ended, with a 61-45 loss Saturday to Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament at the Amway Center, but reality is this season was a successful one given all that went against the Panthers.

Pitt started the season with only five returning players and then early in the ACC season lost one of those players, Durand Johnson, to a torn ACL.

The Panthers also weathered the storm of having Zanna and Patterson injured for a few weeks and relied heavily on four freshmen.

Yet despite that, they won 26 games, finished in fifth place in the ACC, won two ACC tournament games and an NCAA tournament game before bowing out to the top overall seed Gators.

Coach Jamie Dixon said this team has been a joy to work with because they did start the season with so many questions.

"I think when you look at where we came from, we never used the youth as an excuse, we always saw it more as an opportunity," Dixon said. "We obviously didn't count on losing Durand, but when he went down we needed other guys, the freshmen, to step forward and I thought that Josh [Newkirk] was that guy who really improved and started to fill some of that role.

"But really all of the new guys we had did a good job of improving, working hard, learning. We became a team and I thought that we played our best basketball at the end when you want to.

"We're not satisfied but this was a good group and now we need to get started working on getting better again next year."

Patterson wasn't able to say the season was a complete success because "we didn't win a championship in our conference or tournament and didn't get to the Final Four," but he agrees with his coach that the Panthers did get better.

"I am going to enjoy watching the freshmen grow up the next few years," Patterson said. "I think they all have a bright future and this program should keep rolling. I just feel like we should have won more games."

Losing close games was indeed an issue for the Panthers, but they also won a lot of close games.

Pitt lost twice to Syracuse by a total of seven points, twice to Virginia by a total of six points, lost to Cincinnati by one point and lost to North Carolina by four points. If the Panthers just had won a couple of those games they likely would have been a higher seed and could have avoided an early matchup against the Gators in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, the flip side is the Panthers won four games in overtime and several others by fewer than five points.

One thing is certain, the game Saturday against the Gators was not close in the second half. Florida showed why it is the No. 1 team in the polls and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

The Gators have a starting lineup that features four seniors who have been a big part of three consecutive runs to the Elite Eight.

But beyond experience, Florida was just better in every aspect and that's why there was plenty of disappointment in the Panthers locker room after the game.

"Sometimes you tip your cap," Cam Wright said. "They are really good. We feel like we can play with anyone, we feel like we can beat anyone, but Florida is a really good team and they played a great game. They deserved to beat us."

Dixon said of Florida, "Their physicality is evident, they're big across the board. They've got size all the way through and they use it. Their patience offensively helps their defense as well.

"I think people try to find something wrong with [Florida] at 34-2 and there's not a lot wrong with them. They're old, they're experienced, they're by far the most physical team we have played, they're well coached, all of those things."

The Panthers will have an opportunity to build on this season next year as they return seven of their top nine players, have a recruiting class of four big bodies and should get Johnson back into the mix by November.

The Panthers will have to replace the leadership -- points and rebounds of Zanna and the all-around production of Patterson -- but Dixon said he's ready to get started this week.

"You hope this game [losing to Florida] motivates these guys, if it doesn't I don't know what will," Dixon said. "We need to work hard this offseason and improve just like we did during the season."

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

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