The BET is familiar and fertile ground for 12th ranked Pitt. They have been to the tournament finals in five of the last six years, and brought a large and vocal fan base to MSG. Unfortunately, in a hard fought game, there were six factors that significantly contributed to MU's loss to Pitt:
Free Throws: Pitt made 27 of 41. MU was a stellar 17 for 19, but the game differential was at-the-line particularly in the first half. Pitt was in the Super Bonus early in the first half while MU never made the Bonus. Coach Crean: "At halftime, the foul shots were 16-3, and in a physical aggressive game, that's a tough pill to swallow."
Grind It Out: Related to the Free Throw discrepancy was Pitt's determination to grind it out down low. This time Pitt made sure Gray got lots of touches and he responded with 22 points and 10 rebounds, 6 of them offensive boards. Marquette fans in the MSG stands groaned as MU repeatedly was whistled for fouls as Pitt, especially Gray, "backed down" and pushed in-the-paint. Ousmane Barro and Lazar Hayward were hampered by early foul trouble, only playing 23 and 18 minutes, respectively. When it wasn't Gray, it was his teammates as MU had a hard time stopping the Pitt front line inside. Gray scored Pitt's first 11 points in the 2nd half when they took control of the game momentum.
Gray's Buddies: Five Pitt players scored in double figures as they shot 49% and 6-11 from three. MU shot 46% with 8-24 beyond the arc. Pitt out-rebounded MU 37-33, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds as they often played volleyball after MU successfully defended Pitt's first shot.
No McNeal: Without injured G Jerel McNeal, MU was not able to force Pitt Turnovers. Opponent turnovers have been a big part of MU's success, but Pitt had only 7 turnovers, 3 from MU steals. MU had 14 turnovers, 9 in the critical 2nd half.
Bench Scoring: Bench scoring was not there for MU, with only 5 points, all by David Cubillan. With top sub Dan Fitzgerald now starting for McNeal, MU's bench needs to contribute more statistically for NCAA tournament success.
Missed Opportunities: Especially in the 2nd half, MU simply could not start a run by putting together back-to-back "stops" and converting them to scores. MU fought gamely and would chip away, but Pitt would always counter. A missed lay-up by Cubillan, Ooze stripped on the way to what looked like an inside score, a 5 second call against Mathews… these and other mistakes kept MU from changing momentum.
MU was very competitive in the 1st half despite falling behind early. MU tied the game at 18 on two Dominic James Free Throws at 11:12. There were eight lead changes and four ties in the 1st half as MU went to the locker room down 40-37. MU fans were hopeful and optimistic because the Eagles were playing hard. However, MU was a little shaky at the start of the 2nd half and Pitt widened the lead that the Eagles were never able to surmount. Dominic James said. "We didn't have enough energy coming out (in the 2nd half) and we weren't sharp… That's one thing that we've got to be aware of and focus on for the tournament… when the 1st half is over, you've got to come back with the same energy level."
The good news for Marquette was the continued strong play of Dan Fitzgerald and Wes Matthews, as well as the continued growth of Lazar Hayward. Fitz led MU in scoring for the 2nd night with 20 points, 4-8 on 3s, and 4 rebounds. Matthews scored 19 on 6-11 shooting, 6-6 FTs and grabbed 7 rebounds. Barro scored 8 and pulled down 8 boards in only 23 mins. Hayward tallied 11 points in only 18 mins. Dominic James had 16 points with 5 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal that was an astonishing leap-and-interception to stop a Pitt alley-oop. The boys played hard but possibly were a bit tired, and going against a very determined Pitt team (remember, MU denied them the conference co-championship just last Saturday).
Coach Crean has often called this young team a "work-in-progress." With Jerel McNeal's status indefinite, more players need to step-up for post-season success. No doubt MU learned more about itself in the BET to help prepare for the NCAA. It was a good trip. Now back to "The Al" for more practice and preparation for Marquette's "Invitation to the Big Dance."