Ron Cook: Pitt faded, but it won't be forgotten



SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- There are bad losses, worse losses and losses that a team can use to improve. There is no reason to think Pitt can't learn from its mistakes in a 59-54 loss to unbeaten Syracuse Saturday and be better because of the defeat.

Don't get the wrong idea. There is no such thing as a good loss for a college basketball program of Pitt's status. This loss was difficult for the Panthers to handle for reasons that went beyond the fact it was for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They led by three points and had the ball with four minutes left but scored only two points the rest of the way. They made just 13 of 23 free throws after shooting it lights-out from the line all season. They didn't play much defense, especially in the second half when Syracuse shot 60 percent and guard Tyler Ennis won the game with a couple of uncontested layups.

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon took the loss just as you would expect.

Hard.

"They're ranked No. 2 and we're ranked No. 22. They're at home and they're supposed to win," Dixon said. "But we came here expecting to play well and win. We had our shot. We had more than our shot."

Two observations:

Dixon said he isn't bitter about Pitt's low ranking despite its 16-1 record coming in. Right.

Pitt had every right to expect to win. Dixon was 10-4 against Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim when their teams played in the Big East Conference, including 5-1 at Carrier Dome. The enormous facility and its 30,000-plus crowd intimidate many teams. Not Pitt. Not at all.

That's why Pitt's fade down the stretch was a bit surprising. Michael Young had a big turnover. Lamar Patterson, who brought Pitt back from a 10-point deficit in the second half with his 3-point shooting, missed three shots. Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna had great looks and had shots that rimmed in and out.

"I don't know that we could have gotten better shots at the end," Dixon said. "We just didn't make 'em at a high enough rate." Pitt shot 38.3 percent for the game, well below its 48.8 percent average coming in. It also scored 23 fewer points than its season average of 77.

Dixon was disappointed in Pitt's defense. Funny the different perspectives coaches have, isn't it? Boeheim said Syracuse played offensively "as good as we can play." Dixon thought the Panthers hardly covered. "We had a lot of breakdowns defensively. They shot [51] percent. You can't allow a team to shoot [51] percent." Ennis' two easy layups on consecutive possessions gave Syracuse leads of 53-52 and 55-52, prompting Boeheim to gush, "He made some of the best plays I've seen in a long time. You don't get to the basket against Pittsburgh. He got to the basket for two layups. He won the game down the stretch for us."

Dixon also wasn't happy that Pitt didn't do more with its 35-24 rebounding edge, which included 16 offensive rebounds. "For the most part, we got the ball where we wanted it. We just didn't finish."

So, sure, Dixon has plenty to correct when he gets his players back in the lab.

But don't think Pitt didn't do plenty well. If Syracuse is No. 2 in the country, Pitt is not far behind. It will have a chance to prove it when the teams play again Feb. 12 at Petersen Events Center.

"That's as good a Pittsburgh team as I've seen in a long time," Boeheim said. "I think it will be difficult for anyone to beat them. They've got the inside game that you've got to have. They get really great guard play. And Patterson is a tremendous player."

Patterson made three consecutive 3-point shots to cut Syracuse's 37-27 lead to 39-36. He made another 3 to give Pitt a 49-48 lead, then hit two free throws to help stretch it to 52-49 before going cold with the rest of his teammates.

Pitt's comeback from 10 points down against a good team in a tough building was impressive. So was its rebounding edge, built significantly by Zanna, who had another double-double with 11 rebounds and 12 points. He's a typical Dixon player, a guy who stays four or five years and gets better and better.

Dixon's teams generally get better, as well. Here's a prediction: This Pitt team will get better.

"Like I told the guys, this isn't the season. It's just one game. There's another one Tuesday night."

Clemson comes to Petersen Events Center.

"We'll be ready," Dixon growled.

This is just a guess.

The coach and his team can't wait to get back in the lab.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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