Pitt's first season under Stallings ends with loss to Virginia
March 9, 2017 12:02 AM
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
Pitt forward Jamel Artis is double-teamed by Virginia guard Kyle Guy, left, and Jarred Reuter during the first half of the second round of the ACC tournament Wednesday in New York.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The horn blared at the Barclays Center and Pitt's four seniors looked over their shoulders, seeing the ends of their respective college careers waiting at the scorers’ table in the form of four teammates waiting to take their place on the court.
With 1:25 remaining in what ended as a 75-63 loss to Virginia Wednesday, the Panthers’ seniors — Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones — walked off the court one by one. As he made his way to his seat, Jeter could hear his father in the crowd saying he was proud of him. Each member of the quartet was embraced by teammates, who passed along words of thanks, and greeted by a head coach with whom they had to build a relationship on the fly and accept whatever came with the arrangement, moments good and bad.
What was, in many ways, a lost season ended the only way it could, with a loss. A team that proved over the course of 33 games to be flawed and prone to bouts of self-destruction fell to an opponent that, if not more talented, was more cohesive and more entrenched in how it played, benefitting from years of stability that Panthers players, because of forces largely beyond their control, never had.
A senior-laden team that recorded the program’s first losing season since 1999-2000 ended that underwhelming run on a decidedly more upbeat note. A squad that was maddeningly inconsistent to its fans and coaches alike showed the best version of itself in the first two rounds of the ACC tournament, coming back from deficits and the kind of adversity that, for months, made it shrivel. It came too late to salvage its season, and it only meant so much, but to everyone involved, it meant something.
“I was really proud of how our guys fought and kind of came together this week,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “Kind of the character they showed to stay together given a tough circumstance and a tough season, and to come out and to perform the way they did last night and have to grind out that win against Georgia Tech and then come back tonight and really fight to the very, very end. There was no back up, no give up, no give in. I was proud of them for that.”
Sophomore Cameron Johnson led the team with a game-high 20 points while Artis and Young finished with 18 and 14, respectively. Young, with 1,835 points to his name, finishes his Pitt career as the program's seventh all-time leading scorer, just five points behind sixth-place Jason Matthews and six points behind fifth-place Don Hennon. Artis, Young's four-year teammate and close friend, finishes 11th on the all-time scoring list.
The Cavaliers (22-9) made half of their 22 3-point attempts, with freshman Kyle Guy making four of his six en route to a 20-point night. Ten different players scored for Virginia, which got 23 points from its bench compared to the zero its opponent received from its reserves. It led for 36:23 of a possible 40 minutes.
Its methodical offense and suffocating defense routinely proved to be too much for the Panthers (16-17), who fell behind by 11 in the opening 11 minutes and trailed by the same margin at halftime. In each instance, though, they came back, displaying a resilience that was equal parts admirable and unexpected, given how the season had transpired. Pitt outscored Virginia, 20-10, in the first seven minutes of the second half, getting within a point after a dunk from Jeter with 13:08 remaining.
“No matter how much we got down in this game, we kept fighting back because in the back of our minds, we kept saying we didn't want this to be the last one,” Jeter said.
That push, however, would represent a final stand. The Panthers, following Jeter’s slam, wouldn't make a field goal for the next 5:13 and watched a one-point deficit balloon into a 12-point one, putting a win out of reach heading into the game’s final five minutes.
"I don’t know exactly what it was, but it was those moments that hurt us,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, we’ll make a jump shot and it doesn’t fall, we need to get to the hoop better. It just happened today and they did a good job of burying their shots. At moments we did and at moments we didn’t. We gave it our all today. I’m very thankful I got to play with them. It’s rough to end it like this, but I know we gave it our all today.”
Virginia was a fitting final opponent for Pitt. It was a team against whom the Panthers had showcased their best tendencies — scoring 88 against it in a Jan. 4 win that vaulted them to 12-3 — but also their worst, as was demonstrated in a 25-point road loss last Saturday in which Young and Artis were benched for the first 10 minutes after being late to a team function that morning.
It was an inconsistent and irregular season, but by the time it was over, there was a measure of acceptance with everything that had occurred, no matter how difficult it may have been to process.
“I’m proud of the team for going out there and giving their all, whether it was me playing a lot of minutes or somebody else who didn’t play a lot of minutes,” Young said. “That's all I can ask for. The game didn't go our way. That's what it is. I'm proud of my guys. They're a phenomenal team. That's the third time playing them and every game was harder each time we played them. We gave it our all, but a couple shots, a couple calls, a couple mental lapses on our part on defense and maybe the game would've been different. Overall, we did a great job.”
With the loss, the seniors closed a chapter on their respective careers, a stretch of time that will be dissected, debated and occasionally scrutinized in the coming months and over the course of Stallings' tenure at the school.
They've known for months their time at the school likely wouldn't end how they would have preferred it to, or at least how they once envisioned it, but in a somber, understated locker room after the loss, it didn't make it any easier to digest.
“It wasn't so much about how people perceived us, but it was about how we wanted to go out,” Jeter said. “We didn't want to go out how we are right now. We couldn't avoid it, I guess.”
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