Pitt on heels all game, falls 71-70 to Niagara
Pitt freshman guard Xavier Johnson spun through traffic under the basket, looking for an opening. He found a sliver, raised the basketball toward the goal and — for a moment — it looked like the winner.
But the ball rolled off the rim and fell out, giving Pitt its first home loss under coach Jeff Capel, whose demeanor probably wouldn’t have changed, even if Johnson’s shot was good.
The result was a 71-70 loss to Niagara (3-4), a road-weary team that came into the game without their best player (Marvin Prochet, 20 points, 11.3 rebounds) while lugging a three-game losing streak and a 329 RPI.
One more shot going through the net that would have produced a one-point victory wouldn’t have changed Capel’s message to his team. At this point in the season, the process matters more than the final score.
“They were way more prepared than we were. That’s on me,” he said. “We were on our heels the whole game. We didn’t defend the way we had been defending. We weren’t as connected as we have been.”
Pitt fell to 7-2 before a crowd of 3,468 at Petersen Events Center for several reasons that can be quantified on the stat sheet.
• The Panthers committed 18 turnovers, giving them 45 over the last five halves (including the second half of the loss at Iowa).
• Niagara enjoyed a 38-31 advantage in rebounding, with Pitt’s 6-foot-6 freshman guard Au’Diese Toney playing center for a time and grabbing nine off the defensive glass. The next-best Pitt rebounders were Jared Wilson-Frame and backup center Terrell Brown with three each.
“That’s ridiculous,” Capel said.
One rebound that got away late in the game was indicative of how Pitt played, Capel said.
With Pitt trailing by three with 1 minute, 57 seconds to play, Niagara’s Chris Barton missed a 3-pointer, and Johnson was allowing the loose ball to bounce out of bounds. But Keleaf Tate, who led Niagara with 17 points, hustled around Johnson and knocked the ball off him to retain possession for his team.
“We forced a miss and didn’t grab it,” Capel said. “We waited for it to go out of bounds, and they made the biggest play of the game and it was indicative of how bad they wanted it.”
Niagara came into the game with a little added motivation. Senior forward Dominic Robb, who lives in Cranberry and played at North Catholic, wanted to play well in his homecoming. He responded with 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks. Robb, 6-8, 226 pounds, leads the nation in blocks per game (four).
“I’ve always wanted to play here since I was a kid,” he said. “I felt awesome playing. Our teammates all supported me. They all said, ‘You’re coming home. Let’s get a win for you.’ ”
Capel paid attention to how hard Niagara played and how focused they were even before the tip. He was impressed with how Prochet, who didn’t play because of a toe injury, huddled his team before the game.
“You could tell they were all in, and they were so focused on this game, excited to play,” he said. “That’s the thing we could never match through the whole game.”
Niagara, which didn’t go home after a four-point loss at St. Francis (Pa.) on Friday night, boosted its lead to 64-52 with 7:10 to play. But Pitt scored the next nine points, including seven by Johnson, who led the Panthers with 19.
Pitt was down 69-67 with 23 seconds left when Wilson-Frame missed back-to-back shots, a 3-pointer and 2-pointer.
Niagara’s Greg Kuakumensah hit two foul shots for a four-point lead that lasted for seconds before Wilson-Frame made a 3-pointer. Pitt forced a turnover — Niagara’s 24th of the game — to give Johnson a chance to win the game with a final shot that missed.
Wilson-Frame, the team’s only senior, missed eight of 11 shots and put the blame for the loss on himself.
“We weren’t focused. We had no energy,” he said. “They played way harder than us. They played way better than us, wanted to win more than us. We lost this game before we even stepped onto the floor today.
“I blame myself for a lot of things that happened today, especially the outcome, the final score up on the scoreboard. I have a very important role on this team, and if I don’t fulfill that, then we’re not going to see what we want to see.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.