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Gorman: Pitt shows promise in deflating defeat

| Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, 7:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Sheldon Jeter pulls down a rebound from Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger in the first half Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016 at Petersen Events Center.

Kevin Stallings let out a deep, deflating breath when asked about his first taste of ACC basketball.

A 78-77 overtime loss to No. 24 Notre Dame Saturday at Petersen Events Center wasn't the way the Pitt coach envisioned ending 2016, let alone his ACC debut.

“Not as good as the first taste of SEC play,” Stallings said of Vanderbilt's 87-77 victory over No. 6 Florida in January 2000. “I wish we could have repeated that but, unfortunately, we didn't.”

There is nothing but disappointment in defeat, and this loss was very disappointing.

But Pitt showed promise and hope for progress.

Panthers fans showed how spoiled they have become by Pitt's success, heading for the exits after Steve Vasturia sank a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining in overtime for the Fighting Irish.

It was a great college basketball game — both coaches said so, unprovoked — but the memorable moment belonged to Notre Dame.

Despite his success, fans had grown tired of Jamie Dixon's stifling style of coaching. They wanted something more entertaining, something less focused on defense and rebounding.

They got that with Stallings, who loosened the reins. The Panthers have been given the green light to shoot 3s, the freedom to play at a fast tempo and have scored 80 points or more seven times.

That was wild to watch in the first half as 3-pointers accounted for 19 of Pitt's 34 shots and seven of its 13 field goals and the Panthers took a 36-34 lead.

Problem is, Pitt's top five players are essentially all small forwards, and no one seemed willing to do the dirty work. The Panthers don't have a true point guard or a post, and Notre Dame took advantage by outscoring Pitt, 40-18, in the paint, with 15 points off nine turnovers.

“We play different. We get up (court) faster, shoot the ball faster within the shot clock, try to get more possessions than the other team,” said Pitt senior Jamel Artis, who had 25 points and nine rebounds. “We don't have that much size, but we try to beat teams down with our quickness. We've got a lot of talent on this team, so…”

So that's what made this loss hurt so much. Pitt believed it could have won, that it should have won.

Now is a good time to remind Pitt fans, no longer satisfied with Sweet 16s, that the Panthers were picked to finish 12th in the ACC.

Their flaws — the lack of a tertiary scorer and bench production — were exposed as Notre Dame used a 16-3 run to take a 60-52 lead in the second half. But Pitt clawed back, answering with a 15-2 run.

“That's the hardest we fought and competed all year,” said senior Mike Young, who had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. “It wasn't the skill or talent. It was just the competitiveness to play harder than them, and that's what I'm most proud of. That's the one thing we definitely can take from this game to the next game: how hard we competed and how hard we played.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey believes the Irish had a “psychological advantage” in overtime, having won six straight. To Stallings, Pitt just needed one more winning play.

Stallings hoped Pitt would have a “mature, motivated response” when Virginia visits Wednesday.

“I don't think that you have any time to wallow in your boo boos,” Stallings said. “You have to get up and be a man and say, ‘What can I do better?' And get ready for the next one, because there's 17 more just like that one that are going to come flying at us — and none of them are going to be easy.”

As Stallings learned in his ACC debut, nothing is going to come easy for Pitt. But the Panthers showed promise that, with progress, they could be fun to follow.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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