Bob Smizik: Pitt's season slip, slidin' away

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When it comes to spin, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon ranks with the best. Like the most savvy politician, Dixon is capable of saying almost anything to put a positive perspective on events.

For example: Minutes after the Panthers' much-anticipated game against Georgetown, with first place and the probable league championship at stake, Dixon said, "All of our guys did a great job. We did a lot of great things."

It was hard to tell from those words that Pitt was on the wrong end of a 61-53 score yesterday at the Verizon Center.

It was hard to tell from those words that the Panthers simply collapsed in the final 12 minutes to lose a game they thought was theirs.

It was hard to tell from those words that for the fifth consecutive game the Panthers played more like a Top-50 team instead of the Top-10 team they are -- or were.

A sweet 3-pointer by Ronald Ramon with 12 minutes remaining put Pitt ahead, 44-36. The Panthers looked poised for an improbable win on the home floor of what had been the hottest team in the Big East. Instead, the Panthers crumbled, and the Hoyas won their 11th game in a row.

"We have to learn how to put teams away in that situation," said point guard Levance Fields.

Instead, it was Georgetown that put Pitt away, outscoring the Panthers, 25-9, in the final 12 minutes. During that stretch, the Panthers made only three field goals. They weren't making their shots from the field or the free-throw line and had costly turnovers.

"We didn't execute down the stretch," said Fields, who quickly reversed his words and said, "We executed but we didn't hit our shots."

The Panthers got an unexpected boost by the return of leading scorer and rebounder Aaron Gray, who was not expected to play because of a severely sprained ankle. Although he was far from his best, Gray, who did not start, scored 10 points, on 4-of-7 shooting, in 21 minutes and had six rebounds.

Gray's ankle, which swelled after the game and makes him questionable for West Virginia Tuesday, was not the reason the Panthers lost.

They lost because they have not been playing like the team that some thought was the best of the recent Pitt era. It has been five games now that the Panthers have played like an average team and not the one some thought had a chance to advance to the round of eight of the NCAA tournament, if not the Final Four.

This slump began when an ordinary Providence team came into the Petersen Events Center and almost left with a victory before falling by six points. Two days later, the Panthers were pummeled at home by Louisville by 13. Close wins against average Washington (at home) and below-average Seton Hall preceded the loss to Georgetown.

This is not the same team that had won 11 of 12 from Dec. 21 through a 13-point win at West Virginia Feb. 7.

What stands out most in this slump is the Panthers' failure to make big shots. That once had been their strength. If there was one big difference between this Pitt team and its recent predecessors, it was its ability to shoot. This team was far more capable offensively than those of the past. But not lately.

The usually sharp-shooting Ramon made 3 of 9 3-pointers yesterday. Fields made 1 of 7. As a team, the Panthers were 7 for 24 from 3-point range.

The past five games, Fields and Ramon both have made 7 of 23 from beyond the arc, and Antonio Graves has made 4 of 17. Combined, the Panthers' three guards are 18 of 63, 28.6 percent.

It was the expert 3-point shooting that was taking pressure off Gray earlier in the season. Without that threat, teams can collapse even more on Gray, who is the closest thing Pitt has to a go-to guy.

The Panthers have two games remaining in the regular season, West Virginia and Saturday at Marquette, a team that beat them at home Jan. 21. Both teams were in the Top 25, 16th and 22nd, respectively, last week.

"We've got to bounce back, we've got to take care of our business," said Fields.

The once hoped-for No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is out of the question. Nor is a No. 2 seed particularly likely. The selection committee looks hard at how a team closes the season. With two games and the Big East tournament remaining, the Panthers have the look of a No. 3 seed or lower.

A sweet season is turning sour. It's not too late to change direction, but there has to be doubt as to whether this team is capable of such an adjustment.



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