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Pitt basketball shows signs of progress during win streak

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, 7:12 p.m.
Pitt's Shamiel Stevenson dunks past Duquesne's Tydus Verhoeven in the second half Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Shamiel Stevenson dunks past Duquesne's Tydus Verhoeven in the second half Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.

Pitt coach Kevin Stallings is pleased with his team's three-game winning streak, the way it executed the offense in recent weeks and how players, finally, “took great care of the ball” while beating Duquesne.

But nothing makes Stallings breathe easier than the one characteristic of his players that fans can't see when it occurs in practice and might not notice in games: They listen.

“They try very hard to do what we ask them to do,” Stallings said after a convincing 76-64 victory against Duquesne on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena. “We're not always great at doing it, but they try very hard to do what we want.”

It could be the product of a young team not set in its ways like last year's senior-laden starting lineup. But Stallings' ability to continue to capture his players' attention will be crucial in this season of rebuilding.

Pitt hasn't had it easy through the first eight games, opening on the road at Navy (a loss) and playing power conference teams Penn State and Oklahoma State in Brooklyn (two more losses). Meanwhile, everyone is trying to learn each other's — and Stallings' — habits.

That unfamiliarity probably appeared on the stat sheet when the Panthers committed 105 turnovers in the first seven games, including 22 on Tuesday at Petersen Events Center against High Point.

But they showed plenty of poise before a crowd of 10,118 on Friday, committing only eight turnovers (three in the first 29 minutes).

Some of that cool approach can be attributed to senior Ryan Luther and junior Jared Wilson-Frame, who drew praise from Stallings for aspects of their games that don't appear in a box score.

“He doesn't get in a hurry,” Stallings said of Luther. “I think a lot of our calm comes from him.

“Jared did not have a great night (three points in 21 minutes), but Jared gives us calm, too. He's a very confident, calm guy out on the court.

“Both of those guys give us some poise, and that kind of permeates.”

Luther, who hit two 3-pointers against Duquesne by not rushing the mechanics of his shot, has taken on a leadership role in his senior season. He said he likes what he has seen from the younger players.

Four freshmen -— Marcus Carr, Parker Stewart, Shamiel Stevenson and Khameron Davis — contributed 44 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists against Duquesne.

“A lot of young guys are making plays beyond their years,” Luther said.

Pitt is starting to eliminate the hiccups in its game at a good time, with West Virginia and its full-court pressing defense coming to the Pete next Saturday night. The Panthers resume their nonconference schedule Tuesday against Mount St. Mary's, also at the Pete.

In fact, Pitt won't leave Pittsburgh for the remainder of this calendar year, finally getting on an airplane to visit Louisville on Jan. 2 in its second ACC game. The conference opener is Dec. 30 against Miami.

Pitt's recent stretch of solid play might not continue when the opposition gets tougher. For now, though, Stallings is encouraged.

“I think they're getting more comfortable with what we're doing,” he said. “I think we've been able to add a few things that play well to our personnel.

“It's hard to have everything in you want to do by the first game. At least it is for me. We've kind of figured some of other stuff out that suits us, and they like it. If they like it and it works for us, it's probably a good thing.”

Stallings, who has won 475 games in his 25-year coaching career, won't brag about a 4-4 record. But he sees signs of progress.

“From a record standpoint, I didn't have an idea of where we would be (after eight games),” he said. “I can tell you I hoped we would be better.

“In terms of how we're playing, I do think the last couple weeks we're showing signs in different areas of becoming a better team.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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