Ron Cook: Pitt makes big strides in ACC trip



GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Go back to the ugly home loss to North Carolina State March 3. Pitt was in an awful place. It had just lost for the fifth time in six games at Petersen Events Center, where it hardly ever loses. It was outrebounded, 35-23, and had just two offensive rebounds. Its grip on an NCAA tournament bid was weak and slipping fast. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was as despondent as he had been in 11 years on the job.

"Our crowd was great. We weren't," he said. "It's sad."

Now, look at Pitt. It's in a much better spot despite its 51-48 loss Saturday to top-seeded Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals at Greensboro Coliseum. It will accept its 12th NCAA tournament bid in 13 years tonight. Although it is not expected to get higher than a No. 10 seed, it should go into the tournament with confidence and momentum after pulling off a miracle to win at Clemson in the final regular-season game and then blowing out Wake Forest and beating North Carolina in Greensboro.

"It's not too late for us," Dixon said. "We got better last week and we got better this week. Why can't we get better next week?"

Pitt hasn't beaten a higher-seeded team in the NCAAs under Dixon. It will get another chance Thursday or Friday. It's easier to like Pitt's chances based on what it did at the ACC tournament.

There was that 80-75 win Friday against North Carolina, Pitt's first quality win of the season. "I heard from a lot of people in the league," Dixon said. "I guess beating North Carolina in Carolina doesn't happen very often."

Pitt also found a player to ease the load on star Lamar Patterson. Senior big man Talib Zanna was a revelation, going for 17 points and nine rebounds in an 84-55 win against Wake Forest, 19 and 21 against North Carolina and 15 and 9 against Virginia.

"He's a man," teammate Michael Young said of Zanna before catching himself and realizing he might have been selling Zanna short. "He's a beast."

"We've got to continue to get him the ball more," Dixon said.

Even in the loss to Virginia, Pitt did some good things. It won the rebounding battle, 29-27, and had just eight turnovers, three coming on offensive fouls. "The way we took care of the ball was really remarkable," Dixon said.

Pitt fought back hard after trailing, 45-37, with 9:30 left and had two chances to tie. Josh Newkirk missed a wide-open 3-point shot with 1:45 left and Pitt trailing, 47-44. James Robinson then had his 3-point shot at the buzzer cleanly blocked by Virginia's Justin Anderson.

Dixon and the Pitt players thought they were denied an even better chance to tie after Robinson stole the ball from Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon and scored an off-balanced layup at the other end with 10 seconds left to cut the lead to 49-48. Robinson clearly was bodied hard by Virginia's Akil Mitchell, but no foul was called. Afterward, Mitchell said he was "a little bit" surprised by the no-call. Dixon was furious. He screamed across the court at official Roger Ayers as Ayers left after the game.

"Everybody saw it," Dixon said. "Everybody knows it. It is what it is."

No one call ever decides a game. There was no guarantee Pitt would have won even if Robinson had been given a free throw and made it. Virginia certainly wouldn't have quit. It was the best team in the ACC all season for a reason.

Pitt simply didn't do enough to win. It shot just 36.7 percent, which isn't that surprising because Virginia is considered by many to be the best defensive team in Division I. What irked Dixon more is that Virginia shot 46.7 percent. "They had too many layups off drives. I thought we got beat off the dribble too much."

That's often a problem for Robinson, who doesn't have the quickness to stop the really good scoring guards. Brogdon blew by him for a layup that gave Virginia a 49-44 lead with a minute left.

Pitt also failed at the free-throw line for the second consecutive game. It was able to hold off North Carolina despite missing 10 free throws in the final four minutes. It couldn't overcome a 9-for-14 performance against Virginia, not when Virginia made 6 of its 7 free throws.

You can bet free throws will be one of the many things Pitt practices this week.

"We came here expecting to win this tournament," Dixon said. "In no way are we satisfied about getting to the semifinals.

"Our guys are quiet in there. They're angry and disappointed. I told them they have today to be angry and disappointed, but, after that, it's all about preparation. We've got to move on. It's all about getting ready for next week."

The Pitt players talked as if they can't wait to get back on the court.

"I'm confident in my team," guard Cameron Wright said. "We lost this one, but we showed we can play with anybody in the country. I think we showed that all season. Even the games we lost, they were all close but the Duke game -- and that was close until the second half."

Young was even more optimistic.

"We definitely can win some games in the [NCAA] tournament. We just all have to be on the same page and do the right things. If we do that, I feel like no one can beat us. We can go all the way, in my opinion."

That might be a bit of a reach.

Winning one tournament game is a much more attainable goal for Pitt. After the loss to North Carolina State, even that seemed nearly impossible. Now, it seems like a real possibility.

Pitt really has come a long way in a short time.


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

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