The Tigers closed a second half double figures deficit to a three-point Pitt advantage at 68-65 with Josh Dollard hitting one of two free throws.
The Tigers had multiple opportunities to catch the Panthers, but a pair of traveling calls plus missed shots in the final minutes allowed the Panthers to escape Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum with a victory.
"We are coming very close," said Dollard, who contributed 14 points and a career-high 12 rebounds before fouling out. "Just a few mistakes here and there. Pitt is a real good team. When they make a mistake they are able to cover it real fast. They adjust so well. You can see it on the court."
Dollard and his coach, Jeff Lebo, mentioned a key to the game was Auburn's inability to hit good looks at the basket. "We have got to hit the open shots," the sophomore forward said. He was right as the Tigers made just 3-20 threes and hit 41.0 percent overall from the field.
Sophomore forward Korvotney Barber, who led the Tigers in scoring with 19 points, said he was disappointed with Sunday's game as 6,544 fans came to see if the Tigers could pull off the upset. "It is frustrating knowing we could have beaten the No. 2 ranked team," he said. "Like Coach said, we made a few mistakes here and there."
Barber spent part of his time trying to contend with seven-foot, 270-pound center Aaron Gray, who attracted NBA scouts to the coliseum to see him work against the Tigers. He finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
"Gray is a big guy--he's a pro," Barber said. "We didn't have anybody who could hold him down low. That was a big factor, too."
Both Barber and Dollard did damage inside against the big man. "The Tigers outscored the Panthers 40-28 in the paint. "We are lot quicker than (Gray) is because he outweighed us by 40 or 50 pounds so we had to use our quickness to our advantage," Barber said.
Lebo used just seven players. Frank Tolbert scored nine points and added six rebounds for the Tigers, who forced 18 turnovers with a halfcourt trap effective at times in the game. The Tigers turned the ball over 14 times.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said, "I have seen Auburn get much better from last year to this year. I am not at all surprised because Coach Lebo is such a good coach and he has such good players. I can see Coach Lebo getting this program going here as his young guys get better and better.
"It was exactly what we thought it was going to be as far as the game," added Dixon, who noted he was excited to win on the road vs. an SEC team. "They were getting after it, they were tough, playing hard, athletic guys. I think we adjusted in the second half and rebounded better in the second half. That was a big part of it. I thought we played very well. Obviously we would have liked to make free throws down the stretch. We have very good free throw shooters and I expect them to make them again down the road."
Like the Tigers, Pitt struggled at the foul line, making just 10-9. However, the Panthers made up for that by hitting 47.5 percent from the field and 8-20 threes.
"They are tough and they don't beat themselves too often," Lebo said. "They don't turn the ball over very much. They turned it over more today than they did in a long time. They defend you.
"Last year we couldn't even get a shot (vs. Pitt). This year we did a much better job of executing to our strengths and their weaknesses to get shots. We just didn't shoot the ball very well.
"Against the No. 2 ranked team you can't shoot 13-23 from the foul line. It was just frustrating to see us go there, and we spent a lot of time on it, and we not put the ball in the bucket consistently. We just leave points there--one on ones, three point plays you don't convert."
Auburn jumped to a quick 9-2 lead and served notice that they weren't going to be blown out by the Panthers, something that happened last year in Pittsburgh.
Pitt rallied to take the lead at 12-11 at the 14:54. Auburn regained the advantage on a dunk by Dollard at the 12:32 mark, but the Panthers regained the lead on a three-pointer by Keith Benjamin.
Auburn fell behind by seven points, but tied the game at 28-28 on a layup by Dollard. The Panthers built the lead back to eight, but the Tigers cut it back to three on a trey by Archie Miaway.
Frank Tolbert drives for the Tigers.
At halftime the Tigers trailed 44-39 after hitting 44.4 percent of their first half shots while the Panthers were smoking at 60.7 percent. The Panthers were 4-8 on three-pointers while Auburn made just 2-12 with Miaway hitting both.
The Tigers trailed on the boards 19-17 at halftime, but stayed close thanks to 12 points and 10 rebounds from Dollard. Gray and Graves had 12 apiece for the Panthers.
Barber scored two quick baskets to start the second half to cut the margin to one-point, but the Panthers answered the challenge and stretched their margin to double figures at 59-48 before the halfway point of the second period.
The Tigers trailed by 14, but got the margin back into single figures as Barber was intentionally fouled on a breakaway layup. He hit one of his foul shots to cut the margin to nine.
The Tigers got the lead down to eight on a three-pointer by DeWayne Reed from the top of the key at the 5:30 mark.
A pair of free throws by Red with 3:31 to play cut the lead to 66-61 and a runner in the lane by Tolbert narrowed the gap to 66-63 at the 2:36 mark. However, the Tigers scored just three more points and weren't able to take advantage of Pitt's inability to make foul shots.
Commenting on cutting the lead from 14 to three, Lebo said, "They went a long time without scoring. Our pressure got to them a little bit, we doubled a little bit and we made it a little harder with our quickness. I thought DeWayne Reed with his quickness on the ball was a factor with Fields because he is quick.
"We got into a little bit of a flow and we changed defenses a bit and kept them off balance. We just couldn't get back to take the lead. That's, a lot of times, what the hardest thing is to be able to get back and take the lead and then not get it. It's hard to come back from that.
"They made some key plays. They had an offensive rebound on a missed free throw with Gray's size, and he's a great player. I thought our inside guys did a good job. Korvotney Barber and Josh Dollard played pretty hard against those two guys inside who have the size and experience on them.
Lebo said he doesn't believe in moral victories even though he liked his team's effort. " I don't think there is. It's heart-breaking for our kids. We played well enough to win the game. There were some plays here and there. Some of it's youth."
Pitt's Dixon said he wasn't surprised how difficult it was for his team on Sunday.
"I knew this would be a tough game and it was just as predicted," he said. "They're very good and well coached. When I look at them I think about us eight years ago when I came to Pitt and I had a bunch of young guys playing for us, too."