GREENSBORO, NC – Pitt’s attempt to reach the Sweet 16 failed with an 84-73 loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. first time since 2016.
Pitt trailed most of the second half by double digits, but the Panthers made one last push in the final game of the season. The Panthers got within 8 points on a three-pointer by Greg Elliott to make it 76-68 with 1:45 left in the game. The Musketeers struggled at the free throw line, which kept the Panthers at striking distance.
Xavier was 16-of-26 from the line for the game, which raised Pitt’s hopes.
Blake Hinson’s three-pointer with 34.4 left to make it 82-73, but Xavier bent at the end of the line and Pitt missed his last two field goal attempts and the comeback bid ended up coming too late in the game.
Pitt held a 15-14 lead at the 13:15 mark of the first half on a Nike Sibande layup, but from there it was pretty much all Xavier until Pitt’s last rally. The Big East team used a 7-0 run to extend a 30-24 lead to 37-24 and momentum has clearly shifted in their favor.
The Musketeers burned the Panthers in the first half with a 52% success on the court. Xavier guard Adam Kunkel lit up for the Panthers with 15 points, all via three-pointers. Kunkel was held scoreless in the second half, but he was also one of five Xavier players to reach double figures as the balanced attack gave Pitt some problems.
The Musketeers were led by 7’0” senior Jack Nunge, who finished with 18 points, 14 of them in the first half. The big guy Xavier was 8 out of 12 off the ground, and the Panthers never had an answer for him inside. Nunge ended up committing a foul with 3:19 left to play and scored just four points after the break
Xavier’s star player, Souley Boum, was held scoreless in the first half and finished just 3 of 13 from the field. His 14 points in the second half certainly made up for the musketeers and kept Pitt on the ropes.
Xavier’s early burst in the first half was fueled by great movement. Sean Miller’s side finished with 22 assists on 30 goals scored, including 17 assists in the first half. The Musketeers shot 47% from the ground for the game.
For just as Xavier played offense on Sunday, the Panthers simply struggled to make shots. Pitt’s senior guards Jamarius Burton and Nelly Cummings added 10 for 32 in this one.
Burton finished with 16 points, but he had to work hard to get there. Cummings finished with 9 points on 3-of-14 shooting. The Panthers were led by Blake Hinson, who finished with 18 points. Hinson was 3-for-8 from three-point range, including a second-half moonshot to ignite Pitt’s crowd with 4:33 left to make it 74-60.
Aside from Hinson, Pitt hasn’t made his outside shots against Xavier and has struggled at times to meet open stares. The Panthers were 6-of-20 for the game from three-point range. Xavier did an effective job of stopping Pitt from running in the second half, limiting his outward appearances.
Pitt tried to go with a smaller lineup at times in the second half. Jeff Capel opted to use Hinson at center with a four-guard lineup, but the Panthers weren’t letting the shots fly from range. Despite trailing by double figures to open the second half, Pitt attempted just four three-pointers in the first ten minutes after halftime.
Federiko Federiko, Pitt’s starting center, returned to action on Friday against Iowa State after missing Tuesday’s opener, but he wasn’t a big factor. He was even less effective against Xavier, as he only played a minute and spent most of the game at the side of the bench on an exercise bike. Capel said he limped noticeably and didn’t want to injure him further.
In place of Federiko, Guillermo Diaz Graham made his third consecutive start. The rookie center finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to cap off a strong finish to his season.
Despite being limited on the inside, Pitt struggled on the glass. Xavier won the rebounding department 44-41. The Panthers shot exceptionally well from the free-throw line on Friday (25-of-29), but finished just 13-of-20 against Xavier, as perhaps some fatigue played a part after playing a third tournament game in six days.
Pitt won two NCAA Tournament games this year for the first time since 2009. The Panthers were picked to finish 14th in the ACC. Jeff Capel, after four straight losing seasons to open his tenure at Pitt, was probably training for his job. He brought Pitt back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 and won ACC Coach of the Year along the way.
The Panthers lose four veterans: Jamarius Burton, Nelly Cummings, Greg Elliott and Nike Sibande. Pitt will bring back two starters, top scorer Blake Hinson, along with Federiko Federiko inside. The Diaz Graham twins are ready to return after making big strides and the Panthers have three recruits already signed in the Class of 2023, highlighted by a pair of four-star recruits.