Panther lair – Xavier shut down Pitt’s NCAA Tournament run by a score of 84-73
Greensboro, North Carolina – Pitt’s attempt to make the Sweet 16 fell through with an 84-73 loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. First time since 2016.
Pitt trailed for most of the second half by double digits, but the Panthers put together one last push in the last game of the season. The Panthers got an 8-point drive on Greg Elliott’s three-pointer to make it 76-68 with 1:45 left in the game. The Knights had some difficulties at the free throw line, keeping the Panthers within striking distance.
Xavier shot 16 of 26 from the line in the match, which expanded Pitt’s hopes.
Blake Henson tripled with 34.4 remaining to make it 82-73, but Xavier eventually fumbled the line and Pitt missed the last two shot attempts, the comeback bid coming too late in the end.
Pitt held a 15-14 advantage at 13:15 of the first period on a Nike Sibande ball, but from there it was pretty much all Xavier until Pitt’s late rally. The Big East team used a 7-0 period to extend a 30-24 advantage to 37-24 and the momentum clearly swung in their favor.
The Knights set the Panthers on fire in the first half with 52% from the ground. Xavier guard Adam Kunkel led the Panthers with 15 points, all on 3-pointers. Kunkel was a scoreless hero in the second half, but he was also one of five Xavier players to reach double digits as the balanced offense gave Pitt some trouble.
The Knights were led by 7’0-inch Jack Nong, who finished the season with 18 points, with 14 in the first half. Big guy Xavier was 8 of 12 from the ground, and the Panthers didn’t have an answer for him on the inside. Nong ultimately fouled with 3:19 left in the game and scored just four points after halftime
Star Xavier Sully-Baume was a scoreless hero in the first half and finished just 3-for-13 from the field. His 14 points in the second half certainly helped the Knights hold their ground.
Xavier’s initial rush in the first half was prompted by a big move. Shawn Miller’s team finished with 22 assists on 30 field goals, including 17 in the first half. The Knights hit 47% from the floor of the game.
Besides playing Xavier on offense Sunday, the Panthers simply struggled with shooting the ball. Senior House guards Jamarius Burton and Nelly Cummings were a combined 10 of 32 in this one.
Burton finished with 16 points, but had to work hard to get there. Cummings finished with 9 points on 3-of-14 shooting. The Panthers were led by Blake Henson, who finished the season with 18 points. Henson was 3 of 8 from three point range, including a second half moonshot to ignite the Pitt crowd with 4:33 left to make it 74-60.
Aside from Henson, Pitt never made his outside shots against Xavier, and struggled at times to even find an open appearance. The Panthers were 6 of 20 for the game from three-point range. Xavier did an effective job of preventing Pitt from running in the second half, by limiting their outfield appearance.
Pete tried to play with a smaller line-up at times in the second half. Jeff Capel opted to use Henson as a center with a four-guard lineup, but the Panthers wouldn’t let the shots fly off the depths. Despite trailing by double digits to open the second half, Pitt attempted only four three-pointers in the first ten minutes after halftime.
Pitt’s starting center Federico Federico returned to action Friday against Iowa State after missing Tuesday’s First Four game, but he wasn’t much of a factor. He was even less effective against Xavier, playing only a minute and spending most of the game on the bench side on an exercise bike. Cabell said there was a noticeable limp and he didn’t want to injure him further.
In place of Federiko, Guillermo Diaz Graham made his third consecutive start. He finished as a freshman with 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to make a solid finish to his season.
Despite being limited inside, Pete fought over the glass. Xavier won the rebounding department, with a score of 44-41. The Panthers shot exceptionally well from the free-throw line on Friday (25-of-29), but finished just 13-of-20 against Xavier, some fatigue perhaps playing a role after playing their third championship game in six days.
Pitt won two NCAA Tournament games this year for the first time since 2009. The Panthers were selected to finish 14th in the ACC Tournament. Jeff Capel, after four straight losing seasons to open his tenure with Pitt, was likely coaching his job. He brought Pitt back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and won ACC Coach of the Year honors along the way.
The Panthers lost four seniors: Jamarius Burton, Nellie Cummings, Greg Elliott and Nike Sibande. Pitt will bring back two key players, leading scorer Blake Henson, along with Federico Federico inside. The Diaz-Graham twins are set to return after making serious strides along the way, and the Panthers have three recruits already signed in the class of 2023, highlighted by two four-star recruits.