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Pitt left wanting more from first ACC season

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 11:15 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Josh Newkirk leaves the court as time expires in a 61-45 loss to Florida in an NCAA Tournament third-round game Saturday, March 22, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
In this photo from Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, teammates help Pitt's Durand Johnson (5) in a game between Pitt and Wake Forest in Pittsburgh. Johnson will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL and meniscus in the game. He is expected to undergo surgery within the next week and to be back in 9 to 12 months.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Tailb Zanna pulls down a first-half rebound from North Carolina's Brice Johnson during their ACC Tournament quarterfinal game Friday, March 14, 2014, in Greensboro, N.C.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Florida's Michael Frazier II steals the ball from Pitt's Lamar Patterson next to Scottie Wilbekin during the second half of an NCAA Tournament third-round game Saturday, March 22, 2014, at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.

ORLANDO, Fla. — A Pitt locker room that was loose and filled with laughter a day earlier was now quiet and contemplative.

It was a mood swing that reflected the difference between a 29-point victory over Colorado and a 16-point defeat to Florida back-to-back in the NCAA Tournament.

Slumped in their chairs, the Panthers were stunned by the 61-45 loss to the No. 1 Gators in a South Region third-round game that ended their season one victory short of the Sweet 16.

“When you lose in the NCAA Tournament,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, “there's finality to it.”

Pitt went 26-10 but left Orlando with a hollow feeling: The Panthers won four games in overtime and three in the postseason. They lost eight games by single digits, twice at the buzzer.

Criticized for being unable to beat a ranked opponent, Pitt knocked off No. 15 North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, only to suffer another close loss to ACC champion Virginia.

It was a season of promise, mostly unfulfilled.

“We let a lot of games go this year,” shooting guard Cameron Wright said. “That was the definition of our season.”

Rebuilding job

A year ago, Pitt went 24-9 but lost in the Big East tourney to Syracuse and NCAA tourney to Wichita State — both Final Four teams.

The Panthers lost leading scorer, Tray Woodall, to graduation along with Dante Taylor. Potential starters J.J. Moore and Trey Zeigler transferred. And 7-footer Steven Adams, their leading rebounder, left for the NBA.

“Obviously, we were going into a new league, so I didn't pretend to have that figured out in April,” Dixon said. “We knew there were going to be some adjustments to be made.”

With Lamar Patterson, Talib Zanna and James Robinson, the Panthers had three returning starters.

Dixon had to find a post and a scorer. The first solution was simple: Zanna moved from power forward to center. The second was a surprise: Patterson averaged 17 points and was a conference Player of the Year candidate.

Wright emerged as the shooting guard. Freshmen Mike Young and Jamel Artis split time at power forward. A key development was the play of sixth man Durand Johnson, who stretched the offense as a 3-point threat, was developing into their best perimeter defender and became a vocal leader.

The Panthers started the season 16-1. Their lone defeat, coming in the final seconds against Cincinnati in the Jimmy V Classic, would serve as an ominous sign.

Injury bug

The first emotional blow came when Johnson tore the ACL in his right knee against Wake Forest.

Pitt lost a lead at Syracuse, then was beaten by 15 by Duke at home. Zanna injured his ankle against Virginia, a last-second loss. Patterson injured his right thumb at Miami, an overtime victory.

Pitt needed a tying four-point play at home in the final minute of regulation and two overtimes to beat last-place Virginia Tech.

The Panthers were on the verge of beating top-ranked Syracuse before Tyler Ennis' 35-foot runner at the buzzer.

That was the first of a three-game losing streak that included losses to North Carolina and Florida State. N.C. State's T.J. Warren scored 41 points against Pitt, which lost its home finale and finished 4-5 in ACC play at Petersen Events Center.

Suddenly, the Panthers were a bubble team without a signature win. Then, they finally got their break at Clemson, when freshman Josh Newkirk made a last-second shot to send the game into overtime and the Panthers got an important win to go 7-2 on the road.

If the Clemson win hadn't clinched an NCAA berth, victories over Wake Forest and North Carolina certainly did. A 51-48 loss to Virginia only validated Pitt.

“I think the more you're in it, the more games you win, the hope, the expectations, the dreams to win grows and grows and grows,” Dixon said. “That's normal. I don't think people realize how difficult it is to get into the tournament.”

Finishing strong

For the first time under Dixon, Pitt beat a higher seed in the NCAA tourney, with an impressive 77-48 victory over No. 8 Colorado. It was the largest margin of victory ever by a No. 9 seed.

Perhaps that made the Panthers overconfident against SEC champion Florida, which was riding a 27-game winning streak.

Pitt's belief in itself never wavered, even though the Panthers didn't live up to their own expectations.

“Regardless of all the movement after last season, we were all positive and knew what we could do,” Robinson said. “It's tough to see we didn't pull it all together at the end.”

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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