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Pitt looking to enhance profile at ACC tourney

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Duke's Jabari Parker defends Pitt's Lamar Patterson in the second half Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, at Petersen Events Center.

With a last-second shot that led to an inspiring overtime victory at Clemson, Pitt clinched fifth place in a conference expected to receive only five NCAA Tournament bids.

The Panthers (23-8, 11-7 ACC) proved in their 83-78 victory Saturday that they could win a close game against a quality opponent — a major question mark after last-second losses to Cincinnati, Syracuse and Virginia.

But was it enough for Pitt to earn an NCAA Tournament berth?

“I don't know what else there is: We've got 23 wins, 11 ACC wins and we've been great away from home,” said senior swingman Lamar Patterson, noting Pitt's 7-2 conference road record.

“We lost some close ones to teams that are top 15 and some late ones, but that's college basketball. Everyone has their ups and downs. I definitely feel we're a tournament team, and we showed it (Saturday).”

Pitt is projected as a No. 10 seed by bracketologists Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports, who wrote the Panthers “bolstered their fading tournament chances” with the Clemson win. TeamRankings.com projects Pitt's chances of receiving an at-large bid at 59.9 percent, with No. 11 its most likely seed.

Given that teams can clinch an automatic berth with a conference tournament victory, a mid-major upset could prevent Pitt from making the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers still might need a victory — or two — in the ACC tourney in Greensboro, N.C., this week to assure a spot in the NCAA bracket.

Pitt will play the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 12 seed Wake Forest (16-15) and No. 13 Notre Dame (15-16) in the second round at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Pitt owns regular-season victories over both: It beat Wake Forest, 80-65, on Jan. 11 at Petersen Events Center and won at Notre Dame, 85-81, in overtime March 1.

The Panthers are 4-0 in overtime –— with victories at Miami, Notre Dame and Clemson and at home against Virginia Tech — a statistic that Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has made a talking point.

“It says a lot about our kids,” Dixon said. “You talk about 4-0 in overtime, and it says a lot about winning close games, battling and finding ways.”

While a quarterfinal victory would push Pitt to 24 wins, expected to be enough to clinch a spot in the field of 68, it still doesn't resolve the biggest gap on the Panthers' resume: They are 0-6 against ranked opponents, losing five by a combined 20 points, have only one victory over a top-50 RPI team (Stanford) and two late-season losses to tourney bubble teams (Florida State and N.C. State).

That could require Pitt to win two conference tournament games, something it hasn't done since winning four to claim the Big East Tournament title in 2008. The Panthers are 1-5 in their past five conference tournaments.

If Pitt wins, it will play No. 4 seed North Carolina (23-8), which was ranked No. 14 prior to its 93-81 loss at Duke on Saturday, in the quarterfinals. A victory over the Tar Heels, who beat Pitt, 75-71, on Feb. 15 in Chapel Hill, would put an end to talk that the Panthers haven't beaten a tourney-caliber opponent.

“Our season isn't over with,” junior shooting guard Cameron Wright said. “We start a new season next week. We want to go to North Carolina and play our hearts out, as well. A lot of people were saying we were on the bubble or whatnot. If this was a must-win game for us, I hope that they can see that we really wanted it, and we deserve to be in the tournament.”

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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