Pitt drops another heart-breaker in final minute

Kevin Gorman
| Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, 3:27 p.m.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Lamar Patterson could only sit and watch as North Carolina chipped away at Pitt's lead until the Tar Heels turned a five-point deficit into a four-point halftime advantage.

Once Patterson picked up his second personal foul with 9:35 left in the first half, the Pitt star assumed his spot on the bench. A minute later, he was joined by Cameron Wright, and the duo sat out the rest of the half.

“I didn't want to come out at all,” Patterson said of Jamie Dixon's unwritten rule of sitting players with two first-half fouls, “but Coach's got his system, and he sticks with it.”

The tactic backfired when, in what has become a troubling theme for Pitt's season, the No. 25 Panthers lost another game that came down to the final minute. North Carolina withstood a frantic final rally for a 75-71 victory Saturday at Dean E. Smith Center.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who called Patterson “one of the most complete players” in college basketball, noted the significance of his sitting the rest of the first half after scoring six points. The Tar Heels went from trailing 20-15 to a 35-31 halftime lead.

Patterson finished 5 of 15 from the field — his sixth consecutive game shooting less than 50 percent — but the fifth-year senior swingman led the Panthers with 16 points and had four rebounds, two assists and four steals in only 24 minutes, his fewest since the season opener.

“Lamar is really a big-time player,” Williams said. “The first thing is that it helped he got two fouls in the first half and sat out all that time. I think that was the biggest part of it.”

The victory was the sixth consecutive for North Carolina (17-7, 7-4 ACC). The Tar Heels move into fourth place in the conference standings, one spot ahead of Pitt (20-6, 8-5). It was the fourth loss in six games for the Panthers, with the last three coming by a combined nine points.

“They're a good team that's playing good basketball, obviously, playing their best basketball of the year,” Dixon said. “We've got to go out and execute better. I'm extremely disappointed. I'm impressed with how hard our guys played. We battled through some adversity with the foul trouble, the deficit, not making shots and got back in the game. I thought we executed down the stretch better than we did early in the game.”

Pitt had no answer for North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior forward finished with game highs of 24 points (four dunks) and 12 rebounds (seven offensive) before fouling out with 25.6 seconds left. Nor could the Panthers stop sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who made five 3-pointers and scored 18.

Patterson and Wright combined for 12 of Pitt's first 20 points, and the Panthers twice led by seven in the first half before each drew his second personal foul. Neither returned in the first half.

“When your two leaders are out that long, two fouls or not, it just affects you. It takes you out of the rhythm, gets you stiff on the bench,” Patterson said. “It was tough to sit there and watch for so long. That's what made it even worse for me. I'm not doing anything, just sitting there watching, getting stiff.”

Dixon made no exception to his two-foul rule, nor did he express regret.

“Obviously, it's easy to think that, but it was being called tight,” Dixon said. “That's what we've done. Our other guys were playing well, too.”

Freshman forward Jamel Artis scored a career-high 13 points, and redshirt freshman swingman Chris Jones scored six of his eight in the first half. But the Tar Heels took advantage of the absence of Patterson and Wright, along with a lackluster game by Talib Zanna. The senior center missed his first six shots, finished 2 of 11 from the field and scored five points with eight rebounds and two blocked shots.

Pitt had more turnovers (14) than assists (10), and Carolina used two steals to take a lead it did not surrender. McAdoo stripped James Robinson at midcourt and scored on a breakaway dunk to tie it at 27-27 with 5:39 left in the half, and Nate Britt got a steal and fed Isaiah Hicks for a dunk and a 29-27 lead at 2:48. The Tar Heels' biggest break of the half, however, came on Paige's four-point play for a 33-29 lead at 1:49.

With Paige hitting three 3-pointers and McAdoo dominating inside, Carolina stretched its lead to 61-49 at 8:50 of the second half after Brice Johnson's three-point play. Sparked by Josh Newkirk picking Paige's pocket for a breakaway dunk and a Patterson three-point play, the Panthers went on a 12-2 run to cut it to 63-61 at the five-minute mark.

Another Patterson three-point play cut Carolina's lead to 72-68 with 44.2 seconds left, but Paige sank two free throws. Artis answered by sinking three of four free throws to cut it to 74-71 with 22.6 seconds left, and an officials' review of the lone miss gave Pitt possession for another shot.

Robinson missed a driving layup, but Pitt got another chance. Patterson missed a 3, but Zanna rebounded and missed. Patterson was called for his third foul on the offensive rebound, and Johnson sank the second of two foul shots for a 75-71 edge with 2.8 seconds remaining.

“There's games where I went the whole game without fouling. I don't go out there and just foul. That's not my game,” Patterson said. “I showed that in the second half. I didn't foul until a controversial call at the end.”

One that proved to less controversial than his coach's call in the beginning.

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