No secret: Pitt must win games at the line
The basketball gods have a sense of humor. How else to explain Pitt sealing a win over Georgetown on Saturday with a missed free throw?
Panthers coach Ben Howland gave Julius Page the one-time order to miss intentionally because Page had made his first attempt, Pitt led 65-64 and a mere four-tenths of a second remained on the clock.
Howland hadn't ordered his team's previous 16 misses, which resulted in a 24-of-41 day at the foul line for the Panthers.
This game was as close as the 65-64 final because Pitt has problems at the foul line. You knew that. So did Georgetown coach Craig Esherick.
It's not fair to say his Hoyas started fouling coming off the team bus. They at least waited until they got inside the Petersen Events Center. Thirty-three personal fouls later, four Hoyas had fouled out, and another finished with four personals.
"We went into the game knowing they had a lot of people who could not make free throws," Esherick said.
It was a statement that begged for elaboration. So, the game plan was to make Pitt win this one at the foul line?
"Well, I don't think we intentionally tried to put them on the free-throw line," Esherick said. "But we knew if they did get on the line, we thought we had a good chance of them scoring at the most one point off the foul."
What Esherick couldn't have counted on was Chevy Troutman, a 43-percent free-throw shooter on the season, stepping up and hitting all 10 of his foul shots.
"I've been practicing," said Troutman, who also was a perfect 5 of 5 from the field, led all scorers with 20 points and was part of a multi-headed defensive effort that limited Georgetown's Mike Sweetney to 12 points.
Troutman got to keep practicing foul shots in this game because Georgetown was especially willing to hack and shove in the lane.
"I don't think we would have been any less aggressive if they had been a good free-throw shooting team, but I know I was a lot less worried about giving fouls underneath the basket," Esherick said.
By the way, Georgetown also outrebounded Pitt, 33-25, which had not happened to the Panthers previously this season. Again, chalk that up in part to Georgetown being aggressive and willing to take a chance on accumulating fouls.
"That's how teams are going to approach us," Page said. "If we outrebound Pitt, we have a chance to win the game."
Or, if we put Pitt on the foul line enough, we might win the game.
Not every team will have the depth or desire to play it that way that is possessed by the Hoyas, about whom Howland said, and not with reproach: "They wrote the book on physical. There was noting dirty out there. This was just hard-fought, physical basketball."
Pitt didn't shy away on that front, committing 25 personal fouls and sending Georgetown to the foul line for 26 attempts. The Hoyas hit 19, a 73 percent success rate. Pitt's free throw percentage was 58.5.
Giving away that many opportunities on the foul line invites the opposition to play it rough, sort of like the leaky Steelers pass defense turned even the Tennessee Titans into a spread passing outfit.
The Panthers can play the physical style, too, as they proved yesterday. But there could be a cumulative effect if every team comes out trying to win by playing hard, taking fouls, and making the Panthers prove themselves on the foul line.
Page expects a repeat performance at least one more time, when Pitt plays at Georgetown on Feb. 17.
"If you want to play like that, we will play like that," he said. "We'll be ready next time; more prepared. We'll come with our shoulder pads."
Bringing a better touch at the foul line wouldn't be a bad thing, either.