Senior Robinson, young bench players spark Pitt's ACC tournament win over Syracuse
March 9, 2016 5:15 PM
Steve Helber/Associated Press
Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is greeted by teammates during the second half of today's game against Syracuse.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Syracuse guard Malachi Richardson drives to the basket past Pitt forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis.
Steve Helber/Associated Press
Pitt forward Michael Young looks for help as he is pressed by Syracuse forwards Tyler Roberson, left, and Tyler Lydon during the second half of today's ACC tournament game against the Orange.
By Paul Zeise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON — James Robinson is Pitt’s senior leader and this season has become the team’s closer — he has a knack for making big plays at the end of tight games.
So it stands to reason that in the final minute of Pitt’s most important game of the season Wednesday, it was Robinson who stepped up and made two big plays against Syracuse. He broke a tie with a steal and a layup, then hit a jump shot in the lane for Pitt’s final two baskets and the difference in a 72-71 win in a second-round game in the ACC tournament at Verizon Center.
“I definitely know that my career is coming down to this last little stretch and I’m not ready for it to end,” Robinson said of his late-game heroics. “We have more games to win. I was just trying to make something happen, really, and it just so happened that it was me that made those plays.
“But I think that if it was someone else who got the steal or who had the shot, I’d have had confidence in them because we really all just have confidence in each other to make the plays we need to win.”
Pitt (21-10), the No. 8 seed in the tournament, likely ended any doubt about whether or not it is an NCAA tournament team and now will play No. 1 seed North Carolina at noon Thursday.
This was the fifth time in a row the Panthers have beaten the Orange and the third time this season. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon improved to 15-6 against Syracuse and 14-6 against Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. Syracuse’s most recent win against Pitt was in 2013 at Petersen Events Center when Tyler Ennis hit a 40-foot shot at the buzzer for a 58-56 victory.
Despite Robinson’s heroics Wednesday, Syracuse (19-13) had one last chance to win. Trevor Cooney’s buzzer-beater attempt hit the rim and fell out of bounds as time expired.
Pitt’s Mike Young, who scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds, said Cooney’s shot reminded him of Ennis, except he knew this time things were going to bounce the Panthers’ way. “Honestly, I watched that shot and it did seem to be in the air for a long, long time,” he said. “But I just knew it was going to miss, I knew it because it had to — this is our time. I just believe that. I know we haven’t really won anything significant since I’ve been here but this is our time, our tournament.”
The Panthers two best players were underclassmen who came off the bench, redshirt freshman Cameron Johnson and sophomore Ryan Luther. Johnson led the Panthers with a career-high 24 points and had six rebounds, and Luther added 13 points and five rebounds. The Panthers only made two field goals through the first nine minutes until Johnson and Luther took over and combined to score 18 points in a 27-18 run to close the first half. Johnson was 4 of 11 from the 3-point line, and Luther scored twice in the first 59 seconds after he came off the bench.
“I want to come in and bring energy, I want to give a spark,” Luther said. “The one thing we weren’t doing early in the game was getting the ball into the middle against the [Syracuse] zone very well, so I wanted to focus on that once I got in the game.”
Johnson, who was playing in his first ACC tournament game, smiled when he was asked how he was able to remain so calm. “It is just a basketball game,” he said. “They’re all the same, 40 minutes, two teams, 10 players, that’s just how you approach it. If you let the moment get to you, you won’t play as well.”
Johnson and Luther played so well in the first half that they started the second, and again got the Panthers rolling to a 50-36 lead with 13 minutes left in the game. Syracuse never went away, though, even after Jamel Artis, who had 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, appeared to put the Orange away with a long 3-pointer at the 4:18 mark for a 66-54 advantage.
Syracuse started to press full court after that, which sparked a 12-0 run as Pitt struggled against it. When Tyler Roberson stole a cross-court pass and fed Michael Gbinije for a dunk with 1:58 left, the Orange had pulled even, 68-68.
Enter Robinson. He stole a pass and drove the floor for a layup with 1:04 remaining and then hit the decisive jumper in the lane with 22 seconds left for a 72-68 lead.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and twitter @paulzeise.
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