Tim Benz: Pitt draws high praise from Syracuse despite loss
Last Monday, the basketball teams that played Saturday at the Carrier Dome took big steps forward.
Pitt toward becoming a legitimate ACC program again by upsetting 11th-ranked Florida State at home.
Syracuse toward being a legitimate Sweet 16 threat again by upsetting top-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
On Saturday, the Orange stayed on their path with a 74-63 victory over the Panthers in snowy Central New York.
And according to the winning team’s coach and players, so did the Panthers. Even in defeat.
“They’re so much better,” said Syracuse sophomore forward Marek Dolezaj, emphasizing the point with a smile and a roll of his head. “The freshmen are good. They try to push it every single time. There is a difference.”
One of those freshmen, Xavier Johnson, stood out with 17 points and seven assists. Senior Jared Wilson-Frame was tops on the team with 19 after scoring 18 a season ago against the Orange.
“(Pitt coach Jeff Capel) has picked up some really good players,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Wilson-Frame is good. We worry about him. Johnson is really good.”
Despite being down by as many as 20 points, the Panthers had the game under double digits with three minutes left.
The Carrier Dome was a place last season where Pitt looked every bit the amateur-hour club it was perceived to be, scoring just 45 en route to one of its 18 conference losses. However, the tenacity and grit showed by Capel’s team made an impression in the other locker room.
“They didn’t give up the entire game,” Orange junior guard Tyus Battle said. “We were up 19 with not much time left, and they were playing hard. Hitting big 3s. Pressing us full court. They are a well-coached team with a bunch of guys that play hard.”
That theme of effort and tenacity from Pitt was one that reverberated through Syracuse’s quotes after the game.
“They bring their energy. They hustle every play,” Dolezaj added.
Senior guard Frank Howard said there was a noticeable uptick in that aspect of these Panthers as opposed to the versions he played against the past two seasons under former coach Kevin Stallings.
“You can definitely tell, with the change in coaching,” Howard said. “Even the little things. Running everywhere. Doing things together. They are on the right track.”
Gutting things out was particularly important Saturday. Neither team exactly bathed itself in offensive glory, particularly early.
• The teams combined to shoot 20 for 56 in the first half (35.7 percent).
• Pitt had the game’s lone fast-break basket of the first half and the only two free throws.
• The Panthers had just eight shot attempts and no offensive rebounds through the first 10 minutes.
• The Orange were held without a point for a six-minute stretch bridging halftime, and Syracuse never got to the free-throw line until 13:29 was left in the game.
But Syracuse started to heat up as the second half moved along. Boeheim’s team rattled off a 22-4 run between the 16:05 and 9:21 marks, largely pushed by Battle, who ended up with 22 points.
Meanwhile, Pitt never found offensive traction, struggling with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense and the vast expanse of the Carrier Dome. Trey McGowens missed 11 of his 13 shots, including 7 of 9 3-pointers.
“Our inexperience and immaturity really hurt us,” Capel said. “It was a one-point game (28-27 Syracuse). But after that we had five turnovers. Our inability to value the basketball was something that hurt us.”
Capel’s point was underscored by 17 Panthers turnovers. That’s something his team won’t be able to get away with Tuesday, either, when Duke comes to Petersen Events Center.
Shortcomings still exist with the Panthers. Obviously. But the way that veteran Syracuse club was praising them, it appears they’re working hard enough to overcome them.
“They don’t quit. They remind me of our team last year,” Howard said.
As a reminder, that Syracuse group went to the Sweet 16 before losing a competitive game to Duke, where Capel was an assistant.
We won’t get ahead of ourselves. But at least Capel’s former club may be in for a fight Tuesday.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.