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Recent shooting slump proving costly for Pitt

| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 9:51 p.m.
Pitt's Lamar Patterson takes the ball away from North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks during the second half Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Patterson shot 50 percent (47 of 94) from the field in Pitt's first seven ACC games. In the past six games, Patterson shot 29.3 percent (24 of 82) overall and 33.3 percent (13 of 39) on 3-pointers.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The eight-day break between Pitt's last game and its next couldn't have come at a better time for the Panthers.

After winning six of their firsts seven ACC contests, they have lost four of their past six to slip into fifth place behind Syracuse, Virginia, Duke and North Carolina, the four schools that have handed Pitt (20-6, 8-5) its conference losses. The Panthers host Florida State on Feb. 23.

Saturday's 75-71 loss to North Carolina marked the third consecutive in which the Panthers lost by single digits and in the final minute, and fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson expressed some frustration afterward.

“We're not beating teams the way we should be or beating teams when it comes down to the end,” Patterson said. “We've got to get it fixed.”

The single-digit outcomes aren't what concerns Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who sees some answers in the stat sheets. Dixon pointed out that the Panthers have played plenty of close games in the Big East in past years and that he was pleased with their number of open looks and their execution on plays coming out of timeouts.

What is worrisome is that Pitt, once the top rebounding team in the ACC, finished tied at 40-40 with UNC only after getting credit for five boards in the final minute. And the Panthers, perennially an efficient offense, had more turnovers (14) than assists (10).

“We need to shoot a higher percentage than this,” Dixon said. “We're not shooting the ball well, but I think it's more of shot selection. Our offense is not where it needs to be.

“We're out of rhythm, because of guys not practicing and not playing and being injured.”

As much as Dixon harps on rebounding and defense, Pitt's shooting percentage often is as much of a difference. The Panthers are shooting 46.9 percent in their eight ACC wins, 37.8 percent in their five conference losses.

Pitt was shooting 50.4 percent through its first seven ACC games – in fact, the Jan. 18 loss at Syracuse (38.3) was its only one less than 48 percent — but has shot only 36.9 percent in the past six. Its best performance in that span was 41.2 percent against Duke.

The Panthers' dip in shooting percentage mirrors the recent struggles of Patterson. In the first seven games, he shot 50 percent (47 of 94) from the field, including 42.9 percent (15 of 35) from 3-point range. In the past six games, Patterson shot 29.3 percent (24 of 82) overall and 33.3 percent (13 of 39) on 3-pointers.

“We have complete confidence in Lamar,” Pitt point guard James Robinson said. “Every shot he takes, we think it's going to go in. If it's not going in for him, we have confidence he's going to pass it.”

Perhaps that's part of the problem, as the failure to finish by Pitt's frontcourt players is attributing to a drop in Patterson's assists. Described as an “elite passer” by several ACC coaches, he averaged a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio in the first seven games, but that has dipped 1.1 in the past six games as defenses have focused on stopping him.

UNC guard Marcus Paige said the Tar Heels knew Pitt “likes to run their offense through Patterson,” so they focused on making it as difficult as possible for him to be a playmaker. Forward J.P. Tokoto said the game plan was to prevent Patterson from getting to the middle and opening up their defense for passes inside.

“He's a great player overall and he can score everywhere on the court,” Tokoto said, “so I wanted to limit his outside shot and give him the drive because I know I had help on the baseline.”

If there's good news for Pitt, it's that it has a chance to finish strong. If the Panthers can win at least four of their final five games — Florida State, at Boston College, at Notre Dame, N.C. State and at Clemson — they can match last season's record of 24-7. After losing three of a six-game span last year, the Panthers won their final four.

“We've just got to get back to playing how we were playing: get back to rebounding, get back to taking care of the ball, get back to just being out there with complete confidence and trust in one another,” Robinson said. “Once we do that, it's going to be good for us.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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