MERNAGH: PITT KEEPS HOPE ALIVE HEADING INTO BIG MONDAY SHOWDOWN AT WEST VIRGINIA
Pitt 86 Providence 74 is what the scoreboard read when the buzzer sounded last Wednesday night. It remained there for maybe a half second before the board changed to reflect the record for Pittsburgh inside the Peterson Events Center since it was built. The loss side of that all-time record has grown more in the last month than in the last several years.
Wednesday evening’s result inside the Peterson Events Center brought relief to a program and fan-base in dire need of a fresh breath.
Now all of a sudden, in the span of 72 hours, relief has turned into, dare I say…hope?
What was a slightly encouraging win for Pitt against Providence parlayed itself into an actual conquest over a #10 ranked Georgetown team that came in sporting the resume of a soon-to-be top 3 seed. In movie terms the Pitt Panthers have quickly moved from Waiting to Exhale territory directly into the How Stella Got Her Groove Back neighborhood.
The victory over Providence was good because Pitt, a team used to winning, had been mired in an unheard of eight game losing streak that produced one particular national headline — “Keystone Flops” — in a piece that also featured their struggling neighbors on the other side of the state Villanova. Keystone Flops was clever as hell (props to ESPN.com for that one) but still, upon seeing it, had to cut to the core of one of the proudest programs in all of college basketball. Think about how Nasir Robinson, Travon Woodall and Ashton Gibbs, all players that have not only won but won overwhelmingly throughout their careers, had to feel the first time they laid eyes on that particular front page of the worldwide leader’s college basketball section. Words do hurt, especially when they’re true.
Then, Wednesday night, a healthy Travon Woodall returned, scored 17 points while dishing out 9 assists with nary a turnover, and Pitt beat Providence. Afterwards Jamie Dixon admitted what he’d been denying throughout the streak — that missing Woodall had all but destroyed any chance his team had of winning.
Woodall is a veteran point guard, a fearless kid from the heart of Brooklyn who stares fear in the face and smiles. It’s that trait, along with a tendency to come up huge in pressure situations, that makes my wife constantly say “come on Little Tra” and “good job Little Tra” whenever she watches him play. It also makes her blood curl whenever she hears Pitt fans belittle him. “Don’t they understand he’s their leader and playmaker?” she’ll ask me. I think from here on out the fact that Pitt is far better with Woodall than without him should be evident. I mean, the kid goes down and they lose eight in a row, resembling a group of guys who couldn’t score in a whorehouse with a pocket full of C-notes. He comes back, has a great game, and they beat Providence
But let’s be honest, the Friars are a team that — despite Ed Cooley’s intimidating sneer, followed by a confident proclamation that the “Friars are gonna be fine big guy,” in the post-game presser — couldn’t play dead in a cowboy movie right now. Some advice to the snarling prodigal son: The Friars might be fine, but it would probably be easier to get to that point with them if you manage to keep your hands off opposing players going into timeouts. Just a thought big guy (and maybe take a cue from the short three-year reign of your predecessor and teach your team how to defend, as it’s clear from Wednesday night that they still don’t understand the concept).
So while Providence was a getting the monkey of their back kind of win for Pitt, it really didn’t accomplish anything except that. It stopped the bleeding but still made folks wonder if it was just a temporary band aid or if this group could somehow overcome their incredible run of defeats and actually beat a really good team at home. And yesterday afternoon they went out and did just that, handling Georgetown 72-60 in front of a geeked-up crowd led by the Oakland Zoo.
Lamar Patterson and Nasir Robinson were primarily responsible as both had games that players dream about.
Robinson was nearly perfect offensively in 31 minutes of action. The 6’4″ tough, who has his knee drained once or twice a week in order just to play, was 9-9 from the floor and 5-6 from the free throw line, finishing with 23 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists. Patterson spent the entire game catching the ball and attacking the rim, either finishing or finding a teammate who finished (most often the recipient was Robinson). He was 6-8 from the field and 5-5 from the line for 18 points, 7 dimes and zero miscues. He also grabbed 4 rebounds and made a steal. Patterson’s role is so much more defined with Woodall in the lineup. He can just catch, read and decide without having to worry about handling the ball outside of 25 feet from the basket. Patterson is a player who has great instincts when he’s not asked to do things he’s not capable of. Woodall’s presence makes that possible and as a result the Panthers are getting higher percentage shots.
All of the easy buckets came in front of future Panther Steven Adams, who couldn’t be blamed if he spent the game envisioning the number of dunks he’ll be getting courtesy of Patterson and Woodall in the future, and how loud the “insane Zoo” would be after those dunks. Woodall’s shot was off but he still managed 10 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal to go with his 4 points. Notice that I haven’t mentioned the Panthers “star” yet?
The most encouraging thing about Pitt beating Georgetown was that Ashton Gibbs didn’t have a great game. This win comes with the added benefit/realization that he doesn’t have to have a great game for Pitt to beat a top-ten club. Gibbs, to his credit, adjusted and bought in, making a huge back-cut on one key second half possession that resulted in a much-needed 12-foot jumper from the baseline. He finished with 13 on 4-8 shooting, hitting 4-4 free throws down the stretch as the Hoyas were trying to foul to get back into the game. He also did an admirable job chasing the Hoya guards around for 32 minutes.
Talib Zanna was a gobbler on the boards, grabbing 10 –seemed like more — while finishing enough around the rim to tally 8 points. Dante Taylor even chipped in with some solid defense on Georgetown big Henry Sims late in the game.
John Thompson III was not happy after the game, expressing disdain with his teams rebounding and defense (or lack thereof). But Thompson also gave Pitt credit. “They got whatever they wanted whenever they wanted,” Thompson said, “and that will be addressed in practice.” The Hoyas are probably in for a few hard days, but they should be fine. Otto Porter is a talent and Sims is a big they should play through more.
Pitt’s had plenty of hard days over the last month and a half. In fact, hard days have probably been the only kind the Panthers have known over that span. Yesterday’s result at least rewards the work with the satisfying after-taste that only a win brings. Pitt doesn’t have much time to savor the two-game streak.
The Panthers head to Morgantown tomorrow night to face a West Virginia team last seen being the victim of flat-out larceny in Upstate New York. According to Patterson, Pittsburgh embraces the challenge of the Saturday-Monday turnaround, especially given their recent, and now current, circumstances.
“We’re winning man,” he told me after the Georgetown game with a smile, “let’s keep playing.”
Hope is a wonderful thing.
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