Pitt Faces Must-Win At USF

Pitt has a lot on its mind heading into this last week of the regular season, starting tonight at USF. Though the two teams met just two weeks ago, there's still some familiarity between two teams, just as there will always be the familiarity between a pair of Big East opponents in a rematch.

Pitt, aside from trying to clinch a first-place finish in the Big East—part of it which will include a must-win game tonight—as a few things they need to fix to come out with the win, before thinking about Big East aspirations.

In this last game with USF, even though the Panthers won by 12 and had an impressive 40-18 edge on the boards against a big USF team, the Bulls came through in some other areas which helped keep them in the game.

"They made some shots early they hadn't been making," head coach Jamie Dixon said of the previous meeting. "It's their ability to put the ball in the basket. They have guys who can score inside."

From a Pitt perspective, the Panthers have to find a way to get off to a better start. They've been lucky at times this year. They have trailed at halftime in games such as Villanova, both West Virginia games and the Rutgers game. They were able to come back and win those games. At Rutgers, the Panthers converted 28-of-35 (.800) free throws to hold on for the win. In both West Virginia wins, the Panthers shot over 60 percent in the second half to come back and win.

"We just have to come out in the first half better," senior Brad Wanamaker said. "The last couple games, what hurt us, is the second half and playing from behind in the first half. The last couple games in March, teams are coming at you. For us to win games, we need to be prepared from start to finish. We've been playing as a second-half team the last couple of games, but that's something that's going to change."

Then, there was Sunday at Louisville. Down by nine at the half, Pitt did shoot 56 percent in the second half against the Cardinals, in fact outscoring them for the half. They forced overtime, but weren't able to hold on, losing 62-59. They shot better in the half, but the nine-point deficit was too much to overcome after facing two-point, four-point and one-point deficits at West Virginia, against Villanova and against West Virginia, respectively.

It's tough for Dixon to determine which is better for his team. He wants to be proud of them for coming back in the second half, shooting 56 percent at Louisville. At the same time, he wants them to shoot that well for an entire game.

"We're doing our best and playing the best we can every minute we're out there," Dixon said. "Sometimes they make plays. We have to come out and play well for 40 minutes. That's hard to do; easy to say. I liked what we did (in the second half)."

Areas like free throw shooting helped the Panthers win at Rutgers, but were non-existant at Louisville on Sunday. In a game that came down to a three-point loss, Pitt didn't help itself as they converted 11-of-20 (.550) free throws. It was the ninth time in 29 games this season that the Panthers failed to convert at least 60 percent from the free throw line. Even if they converted 14-of-20, which would have put them at 60 percent, it might not have been anything to write home about, but at least it would have hypothetically tied the game with the Cardinals.

Where do you go from here if you're Pitt? Free throw shooting has been an emphasis all season long. Now, with Big East Tournament positioning on the line, Pitt has to take a step back, and place added emphasis on something as routine as free throw shooting.

"(Dixon) has been on us all season, making sure we get free throws in after practice," senior Gary McGhee said. "He makes sure everyone focuses in, steps up to the line and knocks them down. We need to focus a little bit better on that, and attack.

"Altogether, everyone shoots 20 (free throws) at the end (of practice). Throughout practices, we'll go to the line and shoot five or six, so maybe 30 or 40 apiece (in practice)."

Another thing Pitt must overcome if faced with, is attacking the 2-3 zone. They've been successful at times, and have been not so successful at times. USF threw a 2-3 zone at the Panthers a little in the first game. Louisville mixed it up, going with several man-to-man sets and some 2-3 zone sets. In fact, Dixon believes that in the first half, when Pitt struggled shooting from the field, he credited Louisville's man-to-man defense, not their zone.

"It was the man sets to start the game that we didn't get good shots on," Dixon said. "That's something that will come as a surprise to many. To start, they were in man-to-man defense. That would blow up a lot of theories."

Whether it's man or zone, the players seem to have an idea of what is expected of them, in order to not fall victim to the 2-3 zone.

"It doesn't really throw us off," McGhee said. "I think we just didn't do a good enough job of attacking it (at Louisville). We didn't move the ball fast enough. We didn't attack it in transition. We had chances to attack it, so they wouldn't have a chance to set it up. We didn't do a good job of that.

"We have to move the ball around, get inside touches either to me or to Nas (Robinson), get to the high post or mid post, but we have to attack to create (shots) for others."


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